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Corcoran Gallery has trouble getting noticed

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With all the challenges the Corcoran Gallery of Art faces — space issues, financial deficits and fundraising difficulties — one seems counterintuitive.

It’s a traffic problem, a foot traffic problem. A problem getting visitors into the gallery based on its location — blocks from the White House, one of the world’s biggest tourist draws. It’s a claim Corcoran officials have been making since the June 4 decision by the Corcoran board to consider selling its 17th Street building and possibly locating elsewhere.

“There’s some real positive aspects to this location, but there’s a downside, too,” said Harry Hopper, chairman of the Corcoran board, in an interview with The Washington Post. “We don’t have parking,” he said. And, “We’re not a ‘Mall museum.’ We just happen to be near the Mall.”

Fred Bollerer, Corcoran Gallery director and president, urged: “Do an experiment. Go over on 15th Street about 10 o’clock in the morning and watch the number of people who go walking down 15th Street, the number of tourists. And then come over and walk down 17th Street and watch the number of tourists that are coming down. It’s a huge, huge difference. And we’re two blocks away, literally, across the Ellipse.” Also, he added, “we have limited access to the subway.”

Last Thursday, at a Corcoran-sponsored listening session, Bollerer urged audience members to do the same traffic experiment.

Shortly before noon Wednesday, there’s a busy flow of foot traffic walking south on 17th Street after exiting the Farragut West Metro station.

But to Bollerer’s point, head in front of the White House to 15th Street going toward the Ellipse, and there is a dramatic uptick in the amount of tourist traffic. They keep a steady gait past the Treasury Building and at times they have to step off the curb to make way for tourists traveling the opposite direction. They take walking breaks to fan themselves, and snap pictures near Executive Park.

“There is no natural flow of people from the White House to the Corcoran,” said Leon Seemann, deputy director of Cultural Tourism D.C., which encourages people to visit sites off the Mall. The main White House photo opportunity is on 16th Street. The White House visitor entrance is on the east side and the Corcoran is on the west side.

Seemann, who has a background in theater, likened traffic flow to stage blocking. When you want an audience to look from one place to another, you have to give them a natural sightline, he said. “When you are dealing with foot traffic in a city, it’s very similar. They will go where they are visually invited to go.” The other Corcoran disadvantage: “Public transit is several blocks away and the Mall is several blocks away.”

Hector Soriano, general manager of Cosi at 1700 Pennsylvania Ave., a block north of the Corcoran, said his restaurant is not part of a tourist sightline, either. “Even right in front of the White House, you wouldn’t be able to see us.” People will always look for places to eat, he said, but, “when people leave the White House, they are usually traveling down to see monuments or some of the museums. If you haven’t planned to visit the Corcoran, it can be overlooked pretty easily.”

Secret Service Officer Mark Casilas protects a 17th Street entrance to the Old Executive Office Building, a block from the Corcoran. He said the street gets a good deal of tourist traffic and that he often is asked directions but rarely gets inquiries about the Corcoran.

His take: “It doesn’t look inviting.”

He points to the large vertical banners draped on either side of the nearby Renwick Gallery on 17th and Pennsylvania. “You see those banners? Right there, people know it’s a museum. People come to see the White House, but they see the banners [on the Renwick] and they want to go in.”

Two small banners do hang on the E Street side of the Corcoran, but they are easily missed in the severity of the building. The historic Beaux-Arts building with its impressive stone facade may not scream “come on in” to people accustomed to more user-friendly civic structures.

As the temperature hovered near 100 degrees Wednesday, Stella Goodman and her children Amanda, 15, and Brian, 12, visiting from North Carolina, walked from the Metro to 17th Street toward the Corcoran. But they had never heard of the gallery and were looking for the White House. “It’s just a quick trip, we’re here just to see the basics, the Smithsonian, Capitol Hill, the White House, the Holocaust Museum,” Goodman said.

Hurried tourists walking in the opposite direction said they were coming from the Mall. Ron and Lana Tudin from Sarasota, Fla., had just come from the World War II and Lincoln memorials, and they passed the Corcoran but didn’t know what it was. “We actually just saw something about art as we were walking by,” Lana said.

Ron thought the Corcoran’s location was fine, he just didn’t know what the building was. “We’ll go looking for something if we’re interested. We certainly went to the Newseum, which is not on the main drag.”

“They probably need to put a sign in front,” Casilas said.

© The Washington Post Company