As Corcoran sale looms, the silence of its board of directors is disturbing

Nobody really seems to know what the board of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College is thinking. As the institution heads toward a momentous decision — the possible sale of its historic 1897 home on 17th Street NW — we’ve heard from the Corcoran’s leadership, from its employees, from the people who teach in its respected art school, and from the many artists who consider it a vital part of the local creative ecosystem. But, except for appearances by individual members at community meetings, the board remains mum.

The group psychology of a board of directors may be the most important, if least understood, factor in an organization’s ability to think strategically and make smart decisions. Since the Corcoran announced in June that it may decamp for the suburbs, the leadership has struggled to reassure the community that no decision has been made, that it is merely exploring myriad ways to get out from under the accumulated cost of dealing with deferred maintenance presented by its stately home opposite the White House.

The board’s silence, however, has contributed to a pervasive sense that something else is going on. Ask around, and many people involved with the organization, and cultural leaders with their ears to the ground, say the same thing: that the decision to sell has already been made, that community meetings held after the June announcement were simply a panicked response to public outrage, that the ultimate goal is to relocate the financially more stable college to Alexandria and downgrade the museum function.

The Corcoran insists that isn’t true. All options are still on the table, says a spokeswoman.

But many in the community are convinced a decision is coming fast, and like so many decisions in Washington, once announced it will be a fait accompli.

That makes it all the more essential that the public understand the board’s thinking, its composition and its sense of its own responsibility. The public needs to be able to directly address the board, question it, and decide if these are the right people to be entrusted with what many feel could be suicidal changes.

Mimi Carter, Corcoran vice president of marketing and communications, insists that the board has in fact been open, attending meetings and engaging the public. But she says deliberations about the Corcoran’s future need to be behind closed doors.

“The Corcoran is, of course, a private corporation,” Carter said in a statement. “Negotiations with specific opportunities cannot ensure the best terms for the Corcoran if those discussions are held in public. It would be difficult to site any example where any private entity would decide to conduct these types of discussions in public.”

The Corcoran isn’t a private company in the usual sense, however. It is a nonprofit, and every year that it has benefited from nonprofit tax laws, its mission and future have effectively become more a matter of public concern.

Unfortunately, years of chaotic leadership have led to an exceptional sense of distrust, not only of the executive leadership, but of the board that hires and fires that leadership. Consultants have been hired, reports commissioned, and leaders come and go. But when the buck stops in an organization such as the Corcoran, it ultimately stops at the board.

One museum analyst familiar with the Corcoran’s woes but unwilling to give advice on the record lists unknowns that should be known if the public is to have faith in a board: How many are actively engaged? What kind of development of new members has taken place? What role does the executive leadership have in forming the board over time?

The fear in the community is that the Corcoran board has reached the point of desperation, that its plan is to throw up its hands and give up the fight. Which leads one to wonder, is it time for a clean sweep, fire the board and start over?

Radical remakes of nonprofit boards aren’t easy, but sometimes they are necessary. Five years ago, leaders of the Houston Grand Opera grappled with a board that had grown so large — around 175 members — that it was no longer effective. They opted for a leaner, more active group, which meant, in effect, transitioning dozens of people into new roles as trustees rather than board members. But that required enlightened leadership from within the institution, which the Corcoran seems to lack.

The Corcoran board could avoid a firestorm of hostility by being more open and engaging the public. Any decision that involves sale of the building should include a meaningful public comment period, open deliberation and a public vote. Although legally the board has the right to decide the future of the Corcoran, civically it answers to the people of Washington, the larger Corcoran community and the spirit of William Wilson Corcoran.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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