Such tensions have always been present within the Corcoran — although a formal split was never seriously considered in public over the years. Corcoran officials now say they have little choice but to double down on the institution’s hybrid identity. That this museum-school couple stayed together has made it distinct.
“What we decided to do is we sat down and said, ‘Okay, in the art world, where is there white space — where is there space that if we created a unique institution we would be competitive both in the art education world and in the museum world?’ ” said Fred Bollerer, president and director of the Corcoran.
A larger, less expensive and more flexible home could allow the institution to refocus itself more explicitly as an educational institution, with the collection of 16,000 paintings, drawings and photographs put more directly in the service of educating students and the public, while also supporting the gallery, Bollerer said.
Remaining in the Beaux-Arts landmark built in 1897 would cost an estimated $100 million to bring it up to modern museum standards, plus up to $30 million in engineering and architectural “soft costs,” he said.
Corcoran officials attributed the rehab cost estimates to consultants but did not respond to a request to explain the estimates in detail.
“I think the idea of uniting the education mission and the museum display mission has the potential to make the Corcoran distinctive, especially in that location and that market,” said Pillow, whose university includes the successor of a college that split from an art museum years ago. “The Corcoran is the only museum anywhere in the region that has an education mission far beyond most museum education departments.”
The problems the institution faces are complex and long-standing. While strong public and private museum competitors sprang up around Washington’s oldest private art museum, founded in 1869, the Corcoran failed to find a viable niche. Fundraising waxed and waned unpredictably; missteps such as canceling an exhibit by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989 and being unable to fund a $200 million Frank Gehry-designed expansion in 2005 were neither forgotten nor forgiven by some arts patrons.
Last calendar year, gallery attendance hit a seven-year nadir of 85,441 visitors, and in the fiscal year ending last June, the Corcoran ran a deficit of $7.2 million on a budget of $31 million.
The college has been a bright spot. While undergraduate enrollment has declined from 388 students in 2005 to 287 last year — in line with national trends at other art schools — graduate enrollment jumped — from 68 students in 2005 to 265 in 2011. The college was operationally more lucrative than the gallery, with revenue of about $18 million last year, compared with $904,352 for the gallery (both figures are exclusive of charitable contributions made to the institution as a whole). Yearly undergraduate tuition is about $31,000; yearly graduate tuition ranges from $22,000 to $29,000 depending on the program.