Monday, March 31, 2014

Nonprofit Takeover? The Corcoran Gallery, continued......

Last May I posted a blog entitled "The Corcoran Conundrum - Woes of  a Great Art Museum."  It detailed the sad history of the renowned Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. - various management and governance missteps that lead it a point where its very survival was at stake. (You can read the post at the archive section to the left of this page). At that time the Gallery, to survive, was considering a collaboration with the University of Maryland regarding the Corcoran School of Art and Design, and the National Gallery of Art (NGA)  for display of art displaced by renovation of the NGA East Building.

On February 19,  after months of secrecy, the proverbial "bolt out of the blue" struck with the news that the Gallery had reached an arrangement not with the University of Maryland but rather with the private  George Washington University (GWU), and the National Gallery of Art. It is a far more comprehensive scheme than the first. In several weeks the final details will be announced but the outline is as follows:

GWU will absorb the School of Art & Design and be responsible for  the Gallery's iconic 17th Street Beaux Arts building, including the millions of dollars needed for repair. The NGA will, after study, if you pardon the expression "cherry pick" what art from the Corcoran's 17,000 piece collection it will display in DC, either at its facility or at the Corcoran itself in what is will ne  called a "Legacy Gallery." The NGA will also use space at the Corcoran to expand its program of contemporary art exhibits. What art the NGA doesn't want will be donated to museums around the country.

The Corcoran's collection of American art, photography, and contemporary art is held in high regard.. In this arrangement the collection will be dismantled and dispersed. The Corcoran Gallery of Art will cease to exist as a discrete institution. Not known is what will become of the Gallery and School's staff.

The news of the deal was greeted in the DC press with a sad resignation, tinged with some anger. One writer called it "euthanasia" and The Washington Post's headline announcing the scheme labeled its a  "takeover."  There were also post mortems on how such an arrangement should have become  necessary in the first place - citing for example mismanagement and a board more interested in socially connecting  than in collecting art. The sadness focused on the loss of an independent  DC cultural institution (the city's largest in private hands) with a history dating back to 1869.

Washington DC has long struggled with its own self identity, to draw distinction from its just being  thought of as a "company town."  So the dissolution of one of its more prominent homegrown institutions understandably is a source  of emotional distress.

The Corcoran had become a sinking ship, burdened by increasingly large annual deficits, shrinking attendance, a crumbly infrastructure and uncertainty as to its course. The  GWU/NGA plan then has reason to be viewed as a rescue.  A number of life rings will be thrown out to preserve largely what is important  - the art and the building. There was likely no alternative but an arrangement of this kind. Without it, there would remain only cockamamie ideas,  like the one floated by the Corcoran board  in 2012 to sell its building.

Or worse - the example presented in the announcement March 27 that the Delaware Museum of Art intends to sell as many as four artworks, valued at $30 million, to replenish its endowment and repay debt from a facilities expansion. The museum's director said the board decision was a "last resort" to avoid the museum closing its doors. Such a sale for those purposes is counter to the central core of museum ethics and mission - holding collections in trust for the public.

Comparatively the proposed Corcoran deal is the better alternative, or perhaps the lesser of two evils.  In both cases over time the governing boards and management lost their bearings. Perhaps it was because they succumbed to the siren song of facility expansion. What ever the reason, the institution suffers, or in the Corcoran's case, dies. Let us hope the DC plan goes through. The solution shows a degree of  creativity and there will be some important salvage. But you can't gloss over the fact that it is a sad denouement.

Monday, March 3, 2014

"Vamp 'Til Ready..."

I have fallen behind in my posting schedule, thus the above title, which I will explain shortly. My excuse, aside from the large hippo named Procrastination, is that we are busy planning our daughter's wedding at the end of March, or rather I am observing that activity and warming up the checkbook. Such a happy event inevitably can lead to loss of focus on regular matters.

I learned of the phrase "Vamp 'Til Ready..." in December 1965. At the time I was serving as Assistant  Manager of the first recital series produced by Lincoln Center. It was  called "Great Performers at Philharmonic Hall"  (now called Avery Fisher Hall).  The series featured some great artists, such as soprano Birgit Nilsson, violinist Yeheudi Menuhin and the phenomenal pianist Martha Argerich in her American debut.  We also included non-classical musicians, namely Joan Baez and Duke Ellington.

Ellington is the center of this story, although I have a good one about Ms. Baez that I might get to another day. Edward "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) was one of the great jazz performers and composers in our musical history. In discussions with his office we asked if he would be willing to write an original composition for the performance. He agreed.

One of my jobs was to prepare information for each concert's printed program and so I needed to know the name of his composition. I was told only the Duke had that information and that I could talk to him on a certain day between the hours of 2 and 3 a.m. He was clearly a night person, which I was, and am, not. I reached him on the phone and asked for the title. There was a pause and he indicated he hadn't given it much thought. I pressed him (as much as I could at age 24 and in the wee hours of the morning) and he finally gave it to me, almost in the form of suggestion.  I admit now I have forgotten it, but it was something like a "Study in _________," - a bit nondescript.

Another job I had was to look after the artists the day of their performances, and any rehearsal before. Ellington declined  a  rehearsal so the first time I met him was about 45 minutes before the 3 p.m. "curtain." I went to his dressing room and found him there, still informally dressed, seated at a spinet piano with about six of his band members in the room as well. Importantly, also present was his longtime arranger and collaborator Billy Strayhorn. Duke was playing musical lines on the piano and a number of the men were transcribing  notes onto part manuscripts. Strayhorn would offer suggestions  as well as  joining  in the transcription task. Periodically a musician would stand  up and wave his part in the sir to dry the ink.

Clearly I was watching a composition in the final making, only 30 minutes before the concert's start. I don't remember if I broke into a sweat, but nervous is an understated  description of my state.  I checked back every ten minutes or so, found the same activity and finally caught Ellington's eye and tapped my wristwatch. He gave me  a benevolent smile and went back to work.

The witching hour of  3 p.m. arrived. Still wavings of music manuscript in the air. At 3:10 - now quite desperate - I got the Duke's ear, reminded him of the time and asked his advice of what I should do. He said calmly "Come back in 10 minutes." By this time there was evidence of audience impatience. I returned to the dressing room as  instructed, found some men still scribbling but this time Ellington was dressed. He said "Let's go" and he and I - no other musicians -  descended in the elevator to the stage level.

A stagehand was ready to open the door to the stage, bare except for a grand piano and seats and stands for the musicians. As the door was opening I asked the Duke- by the way a most charming and polite man, - what he was going to do. "Oh," he said,  "I'll just vamp 'til ready."

So he did, "vamping" meant improvising at the piano or noodling. He also talked some to  the audience. Maybe 15 minutes passed and then the door opened and the 10 members of the band came on stage, carrying their now dry scores of the original composition. Of course Ellington standards, such as  "Take The A Train" were also played. The concert was a great success.

So I hope you didn't mind if, with this story, I have vamped until my next post about nonprofit issues is ready. 'Til then...