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Corcoran board holds key to museum’s fate

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Washington has worried over the fate of the Corcoran Gallery of Art for so long — some 50 years — that “financially struggling” has sometimes seemed an official part of the museum’s name. Periods of stability and growth have been only intermittent.

Now a high-stakes effort to end the uncertainty once and for all rests on the judgment of 14 relatively unknown men and women — the board of trustees and its bold chairman, Harry F. Hopper III, a venture capitalist and contemporary art collector.

The board members are seven months away from the scheduled conclusion of an exhaustive 2 1 / 2-year process to craft a new vision that they say will, at last, put the gallery and the Corcoran College of Art and Design in sustainable shape. Their zeal to reach a permanent solution has led them to contemplate selling the landmark building near the White House and moving to the suburbsprovoking outrage among many Corcoran lovers.

Museum consultants and board development experts contacted by The Washington Post say the Corcoran presents a classic case of a troubled arts organization trying to save itself by reexamining its purpose. However, they say, the Corcoran’s board seems to be playing an unusually large role in an effort that is typically led by an institution’s director. They also say leadership is taking too long to set a new course, while the Corcoran continues to drift, and the public remains disengaged.

“The cycle is six months to get the vision together, the strategy together, the key indicators of success,” said Robert Sullivan, former associate director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and now vice president of the Washington-based arts consulting firm Chora. “If anything takes more than six months, you’re spinning your wheels.

“Why hasn’t there been that leveraging of the urgency and embracing the community? It seems like there was almost a little sense of, ‘We’re embarrassed by this, so we’re going to go behind the walls and solve this ourselves.’ ”

Hopper acknowledged that the board is adopting an especially active role, and that the reform process has taken longer than is ideal. But he said the approach and timing have been driven by the Corcoran’s history of failed rescue attempts and the rapid turnover in leadership. There have been three directors in seven years, and now a search is on for another, to succeed director-president Fred Bollerer, who is retiring.

In 2005, then-chairman John T. “Til” Hazel cancelled an expansion designed by Frank Gehry after the board at the time and the Corcoran’s fundraisers fell far short of raising the $200 million cost. That showcase project was to have been a magnet for visitors, students, members and donors to recharge the Corcoran.

In 2010, Paul Greenhalgh, the eminent director hired to stabilize things after the Gehry debacle, resigned to focus on his health and to direct a university arts center in Great Britain. When he left, the relationship between the college and the gallery was still unsettled, and the problem of annual $7 million deficits was unsolved.

“We had tried a building-centric solution, some would call it an edifice complex, with the Gehry addition,” said Hopper. “That didn’t work. We had tried to get a content leader with a perfect résumé.. . . That was Paul Greenhalgh. That didn’t work.”

Hopper and the trustees, most of whom joined the board since Hopper became chairman in 2009, started anew.

“We decided to address these chal­lenges through tough, honest self-discovery and leaving all options on the table. And we were going to follow the facts where they led. We were resolved not to settle for some short-term magic with a predictable outcome.”

A united front

It is rare in the life of most long-standing cultural institutions that trustees are called upon to address the kinds of existential questions faced by the current board.

“People who were willing to go into the building when there’s a little smoke coming out the windows as opposed to running away were the kind of people that we needed to have on the board,” Hopper said.

Hopper and his wife, Maria, became members of the Corcoran about 10 years ago. He got to know the board chairman, Otto Ruesch, who began a battle with terminal cancer. Hopper is a cancer survivor (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) “and formed a personal bond with Otto around that shared experience,” Hopper said. Ruesch’s widow, Jeanne, became chairman and asked Hopper to join the board in 2006.

Now Hopper speaks for the whole board. Individual trustees declined to be quoted. A few who spoke on background said they support Hopper’s leadership, but added that they are loath to sell the building. For now, there is unity over the official line that staying in the building and preserving the Corcoran’s legacy are top priorities. Still, the invitation to potential buyers remains open, and a real estate broker is scouting locations for a possible move.

Hopper said that he has a say in who joins the board, but that all but one of the current lineup (his Old Town Alexandria neighbor Anne Edwards) were unknown to him before they came to the Corcoran.

The search for a new vision

The root of the perennial state of crisis goes back to the beginning. As generous as founding benefactor William W. Corcoran was with paintings and real estate in 1869, the Corcoran never enjoyed a large cash endowment. Over the years, as publicly funded galleries developed in Washington, the private Corcoran’s pay-at-the-door model became harder to sustain. On top of that, this increasingly rare example of a hybrid museum-college created unresolved confusion about what the Corcoran’s true purpose was.

In October 2010, Hopper said, in the aftermath of the Gehry flop and Greenhalgh’s departure, and with the gallery’s resources withering further in the recession, he and the trustees decided to go back to the drawing board.

They spent $1.5 million on consultants, including a $683,000 contract with Lord Cultural Resources (not all paid yet), which produced six thick binders of research and interviews with staff and students as well as outside experts. The data examined the state of the art in museums and art colleges worldwide, and attempted to discern the direction in which the best galleries and colleges will evolve in the coming decades. A Lord subcontractor estimated that staying in the building would cost $130 million.

A year later, in the fall of 2011, Corcoran leaders were not yet ready to publicly propose a new vision, but the board was eager for fresh eyes on the problem. At least six trustees joined in two months. They filled the positions of trustees who left through normal turnover, Hopper said. The six included four relative newcomers to the Corcoran — Michela English, Shannon Finley, Kathryn Gleason and Frank LaPrade — and two who had been Corcoran stalwarts as board members or in other capacities for decades – Carolyn Alper and Eleanor “Sis” Hedden.

Yet even now, after 24 months, the new vision remains a work in progress. It is largely contained in a draft document with the working title “Creative Exchange.” Hopper will discuss it only in general terms, saying it presents previously unimagined approaches to integrating the museum and the gallery for a new century, based on the theory that one of the Corcoran’s most distinguished assets is exactly what some had come to view as a flaw — its elusive 19th-century hybrid nature.

Board members are working closely with senior staff members to hone the vision, Hopper said. The new “content platform” will be flexible enough to accommodate potential partners, such as George Washington University or the National Gallery, he said.

David Gordon, who was another subcontractor to Lord but hasn’t worked on the Corcoran project for more than a year, said that when his services concluded, “it had been decided to follow up and do a sort of feasibility study on becoming a new kind of educational institution, neither wholly museum, neither wholly art school.”

He said he presumed that by now there was a document articulating that vision and laying out the location and budget requirements. Instead, no such details have been finalized.

“They need to have the clear plan,” said Gordon, who helped turn around the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Milwaukee Art Museum. “They then need to recruit a director who has sufficient skills and personality to carry it through. Then they can get going on implementing the plan.”

Hopper said the scale of challenges — involving interlocking issues of museum programming, higher education, financial controls, real estate and leadership — and the board’s ambition to set the Corcoran on a path that will endure, required an extraordinary amount of time and study.

“In a perfect world we would have gotten through this process more quickly,” he said.

A cost of delay, he acknowledged, has been stagnant fundraising. Donors want to see the vision before they open their checkbooks.

But he maintained that taking extra time has had benefits: “Because we’ve done the homework, there’s a deep understanding at the board of what our strengths are, and what the potential is for creative exchange, which is the underlying premise of the ‘new Corcoran’ or ‘one Corcoran’ that we’ve been talking about.”

Change of leadership

Bollerer has been working closely with the board on the reinvention, but that is not the standard relationship between director and board.

“A great director has that kind of clarity of vision of what he wants the place to be known and respected for five years from now, and he builds a powerful coalition behind that — the board, community members, donors,” Sullivan said. “The board goes out as advocates for that vision and sells it to their communities and their networks.”

But Bollerer is not that type of gallery director, Hopper said. His forte is management and operations, not vision. A former bank executive and venture philanthropy specialist, he was a partner with the McLean-based consulting firm Real Change Strategies, which advised the Corcoran. Real Change was paid a total of $837,000 in the fiscal years ending in June 2010 and 2011. Three years after Greenhalgh became director, as finances worsened in the recession, Bollerer was hired as chief operating officer in 2009, severing his ties with Real Change. When Greenhalgh left in 2010, Bollerer agreed to become director until a new one could be found.

Bollerer’s skills have been what the Corcoran needed to reform internal operations, pay down more than $11 million in accumulated debt and manage the process for coming up with a vision, Hopper said. Bollerer had hoped to leave by year’s end, but the Corcoran has given itself from December to June to name a director and implement the new strategy. The search committee includes trustees and representatives of staff, students and alumni.

Mindful that a visionary director will want an important say in the new vision, Hopper said the board has been working in broad strokes.

“We were advised that we could not attract the caliber of leadership on the content side that we needed without having a well-thought-out framework, and that’s what we’re working on,” Hopper said. “We don’t claim to have a granular playbook on how a new leader is supposed to execute a vision. We have come up with a framework within which a visionary leader can allow the institution to flourish. Exactly what shape that takes is an organic process that will be led by the new leadership that we bring in.”

While work on honing the vision and hiring the visionary continues, the outstanding questions are the same old issues:

“I think you’re looking for the clarity of the big idea,” Gordon said. “What is it that this institution, having gone through multiple crises, is going to be in the future? Is that a compelling vision, and is that a realistic vision in terms of resources? And is there the leadership in place to carry it out?”

READ: Meet the Corcoran board.

Lonnae O’Neal Parker contributed to this report.

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