Corcoran Gallery to test market for sale of landmark building

(Nikki Kahn/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - The Corcoran Gallery of Art’s 127,000-square-foot facility, built in 1897, is so small that less than 3 percent of the collection can be displayed at any one time.

(Nikki Kahn/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - The Corcoran Gallery of Art’s 127,000-square-foot facility, built in 1897, is so small that less than 3 percent of the collection can be displayed at any one time.

After more than a century of occupying a handsome Beaux-Arts building at one of Washington’s high-profile addresses, on 17th Street NW across from the White House, the Corcoran Gallery of Art is considering a move to another neighborhood, possibly even to Maryland or Virginia.

The chronically underfunded institution is the city’s oldest private art museum. It posted a $7.2 million deficit for the fiscal year ended last June and is considering moving because it would cost an estimated $130 million to bring its landmark home up to modern museum standards, Corcoran Director and President Fred Bollerer said. But even then, there still wouldn’t be enough space to display the art properly and support the growing Corcoran College of Art & Design.

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Board of trustees Chairman Harry Hopper III said: “We have been focusing on putting the Corcoran on a long-term, sustainable path. One of the clear options for us to consider is relocating to a purpose-built, technologically advanced, flexible, multipurpose facility that could house an integrated educational operation, with the college at the core, coupled with the [museum] collection.”

The 126,000-square-foot facility, built in 1897, is so small that less than 3 percent of the collection can be displayed at any one time. Student enrollment must be capped at 600, but the Corcoran wants to expand to 850 students.

During any transition, the gallery’s collection of paintings, drawings and photographs would remain intact and the college would continue to operate. At the same time, new space could enable the Corcoran to refocus on its educational mission, which, by some measures, is more economically viable than the museum.

Bollerer and Hopper presented the options — the results of two years of internal study and about $600,000 in outside consulting fees — to the Corcoran’s board of trustees Monday afternoon. The board voted unanimously to authorize shopping the building and seeking a new location. Corcoran leadership calculates that a more flexible and affordable space will enable the institution to operate more efficiently, while stabilizing finances by attracting more benefactors. Fundraising has stalled in recent years partly because the Corcoran did not have a promising future that it could promote to potential donors, Hopper said.

“We feel that we owe it to whomever we ask for money that we can show them a plan that makes sense,” said Hopper, a venture capitalist. “We are on the verge of executing on that plan. We believe that the fundraising activities of the Corcoran will be reinvigorated around that plan.”

Hopper and Bollerer declined to say how much they expect the building to sell for. They said they will know better after a commercial real estate broker is enlisted.

No jurisdiction or neighborhood has an inside track on attracting the Corcoran, Bollerer said. A popular rumor in city art circles is that the Corcoran is headed to a waterfront location in Alexandria. That is unfounded, he said.

Among the next steps, Bollerer said, is to contact D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to inform them of the search.

The possibility of a move presumes that having a developer retrofit the historic gallery for some other use would be more economical than upgrading the Corcoran to modern museum standards. Bollerer, however, said that if there is no suitable market for an old art palace in need of repair, the Corcoran might stay where it is.

The Corcoran has been rethinking its niche for decades in a city of stellar publicly funded competitors after a series of financial, aesthetic and public-relations crises dating to the early 1970s. (Its woes even tilted toward the bizarre in 1972 when, at an exhibit opening, the gallery’s chief executive punched the gallery director, bloodying his face.) Budget deficits in the 1970s were partially solved by increased membership and successful fundraising. Then, in 1989, the Corcoran sustained a blow from which it might still be recovering — the decision to cancel an exhibition of the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work amid criticism of the explicit content.

Under a new director, the Corcoran seemed to get its groove back and planned a stunning expansion designed by Frank Gehry — only to have the effort collapse in 2005, when the gallery could not raise the necessary $200 million.

The Corcoran has made another recent real estate move to improve its finances: The gallery contracted to sell an adjacent parcel off New York Avenue NW — where the Gehry addition was to have gone — to Carr Properties, which just broke ground on an office building there. The Corcoran will receive $20.5 million for the land when the deal closes — which is scheduled to occur in late 2013.

The latest possible solution to the puzzle of stabilizing the Corcoran might be the most dramatic. The prospect that the institution founded by merchant William Wilson Corcoran in 1869 could leave the city stunned the arts and real estate communities.

“It’s sad. We have had a long history with the Corcoran,” said George Hemphill, founder of the Hemphill gallery. “I hope they would relieve themselves of their debt and pay more attention to the local community.”

“They’re thinking of selling that!” said John Kevill, managing director of Eastdil Secured, a real estate investment banking company. “It might make a fabulous hotel. . . . The location of the real estate itself would be of tremendous interest to real estate investors from around the world. But the adaptive reuse of that space would be challenging to say the least because of historic preservation issues and the layout that was designed for noncommercial use.”

David Levy, who was director of the Corcoran during the effort to build the Gehry addition, said, “The single most important art object in the collection is the building itself.” But he added that he understood the dilemma faced by his successors: “If you are a visitor, it is tucked away. The other part is the place has serious financial issues, and that is encapsulated by the difficulty of getting people to come to the building.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a native Washingtonian, said: “I know these are hard times for us all, especially the arts. But I find it hard to envision the Corcoran of Prince George’s or the Corcoran of Fairfax. I hope they are not going to take down the brand they built in Washington by leaving the arts center of the region, the District of Columbia.”

Separately, the board authorized a search for a director to succeed Bollerer, 70, who had intended to retire soon. Hopper said that he hoped a new director could be in place by the end of the year, but that Bollerer would remain in the position until a successor is hired.

The Corcoran also will redouble recent efforts to better integrate the college with the collection — using the art more efficiently as a teaching tool for students and the broader community. A larger, more flexible space might make that easier, Hopper said.

“It’s really the education assets, tangible and intangible, of the Corcoran that are the key differentiator in the cultural ecosystem in the city, as well as differentiating it on a national scale,” Hopper said.

The college side of the operation ran a comparatively smaller deficit than the gallery side last year, and Corcoran’s community education efforts almost broke even, according to the gallery’s tax filings.

In making its decision, Corcoran leadership seemed aware of the anxiety it is provoking.

“It is not a small thing to look at revisiting a venerable beautiful building in an iconic location,” Hopper said. “But when you get past the superficial appeal of that and you look at the substance of the future path of the Corcoran, leveraging its strengths, and you try to line those up, it’s a very difficult balance to strike in this location.”

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