Corcoran Gallery: Why don’t donors give?

Terrance Shanahan felt as if he were “running to the sound of gunfire” when he joined dozens of concerned supporters of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art and Design at a hastily arranged public forum at the gallery last month. Gallery leaders realized that, for the third time in 23 years, they faced a community relations crisis on top of a financial emergency. Shanahan wanted to help.

Corcoran Director Fred Bollerer offered reasons for the board of trustees’ controversial June 4 decision to consider selling the historic building near the White House and possibly moving to the suburbs. Basically, Bollerer said, the gallery was verging on broke. The Corcoran was about to post its second $7 million deficit in a row, and it would cost at least $130 million to renovate the building.

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Artists oppose talk of selling Corcoran building

Artists gathered Thursday to brainstorm to “Save the Corcoran,”keeping the gallery in the District.

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Where could so much money come from?

Shanahan, a Washington office worker from northern Maryland, had become a member of the Corcoran earlier in the year. When he heard news of the possible move, he said, he bumped up his membership from “supporting” ($160) to “contributing” ($500), to help the Corcoran stay put — though he was never solicited by the Corcoran.

On the day of the forum, Shanahan did receive a fundraising appeal — from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where he had also been a member.

“Why am I not getting the same e-mail from the Corcoran?” Shanahan asked himself. “Why don't they ask every member to upgrade their membership one level?”

The Corcoran’s woes are deep, complicated and decades old, but Shanahan’s experience distills the essence of the problem: At critical moments, the gallery has repeatedly failed to make its own best case to even its best friends.

Unable to present a consistently clear pitch for itself, the Corcoran has made it too easy for major donors to drift to more predictable — and prestigious — art charities, such as the Smithsonian and the National Gallery.

Now, with the Corcoran’s annual fundraising, membership and attendance at their lowest ebb in decades, it’s not just the $500 givers who have felt curiously ignored.

“I haven’t gotten a phone call from anyone at the Corcoran in five years,” said Tony Podesta, a lobbyist who, with his wife, Heather, is a leading art collector. He estimates that the couple has donated 150 works to the Corcoran over the years. “We still occasionally give them works of art, although it’s a little bit nerve-racking not to know what the future holds.”

“Years ago, we went to the Corcoran Ball,” the gallery’s key annual fundraiser, said Wayne Reynolds, former chairman of Ford’s Theatre and husband of millionaire philanthropist Catherine Reynolds. “I’ve never been asked back that I know of. I haven’t really been approached [for a contribution]. It’s not really on my radar screen.”

One arts patron with millions to dispose of said, “I haven’t been asked to give.” And, when the patron’s organization has rented the Corcoran for elegant gatherings, unlike at other venues that take the opportunity to market themselves, “I’ve never met anybody from the Corcoran. Nobody is there to tell me how great they are. I don’t think they’re really in fundraising mode.”

The reason has to do with erratic leadership, poor timing and bad luck over the years. More fundamental has been the lack of a clear sense of identity and mission.

Washington’s oldest private art museum, founded in 1869, has been trying to figure out its niche in the capital’s cultural eco-system ever since its primacy was upended in 1937, when Andrew Mellon and Congress launched the National Gallery of Art as a well-endowed, taxpayer-subsidized model.

Big plans end with whimpers

The Corcoran has never enjoyed a huge cash endowment. Financier William Wilson Corcoran’s principal gifts to the museum were its original building — now the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery — and the founding collection of American art. By the time he died in 1888, Corcoran had also given $1.6 million, according to press accounts then.

The Corcoran used some of its money to purchase land and commission the 1897 construction of its current home, the beaux-arts landmark on 17th Street NW. A benefactor underwrote an expansion in the 1920s, and, in 1925, the endowment stood at $1 million ($13 million in current dollars.)

The gallery established itself as an important national venue. Its biennial survey of contemporary American art was a vital happening on the national art scene for much of the 20th century.

From the earliest days, to help with operating expenses, the Corcoran charged admission. In 1910, it was 25 cents. That common practice loomed as a handicap as Washington filled with free museums. For several years starting in 1979, oil tycoon Armand Hammer, a trustee, underwrote free admission. But entry fees returned and now are $8 to $10.

By 1959, money woes at the Corcoran were a regular topic of cultural conversation in Washington. “Right now, the gallery is just holding its own,” The Washington Post reported in November of that year. “It doesn’t have a money cushion to acquire new works and expand its program.” The endowment was melting under the strain of covering half the operating budget of $241,000 ($1.9 million in current dollars).

Red ink flowed year after year in the early 1970s, as directors came and went. There was speculation that the Corcoran might not survive independently. And the Hirshhorn opened as yet another publicly funded competitor.

Yet after cost-cutting and fundraising, the Corcoran was back in the black by the mid-1970s. During an ensuing period of relative stability, the institution wrestled with unresolved questions of how the gallery fit into the growing menu of cultural options; the proper relationship between the gallery and the college (founded in 1890); the balance between national and local identities; how to expand physically; and how to pay the bills for maintaining a lovely, historic space.

Marshaling itself to tackle all those questions, in the mid- to late 1980s, the gallery launched its most ambitious capital campaign: $10 million for the endowment, $2.5 million for renovations. It resolved to enhance community education and pursue “groundbreaking” exhibits. And it planned an office building on an adjacent lot to expand the college and provide rental income.

One-two punch: Mapplethorpe and Gehry

In June 1989, one of those groundbreaking exhibits turned out to be a show of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photos. In a vain attempt to sidestep a national political battle over federal funding of supposedly offensive art, the Corcoran canceled the show before it opened. The gallery had received no federal money for the exhibit but had enjoyed nearly $300,000 in federal support the year before.

This epic cave-in prompted street protests and artist boycotts. The gallery’s late-1980s aspiration for a financial and artistic leap forward was sabotaged by a setback from which it would be hard to recover.

Membership renewals dropped by 50 percent for several months, at a time when membership stood at 6,000. “We had been recruiting these people by saying, ‘We’re an independent museum, not subject to any government pressure.’ . . . We violated the very spirit we used to recruit people,” said Brigitte Savage, who ran the membership department. Painter Lowell Nesbitt withdrew a planned bequest of more than $1 million.

The uproar squashed the latter part of the capital campaign, which still managed to raise at least $6.7 million. But the real estate recession of the time killed the expansion plan and hoped-for rent stream.

Yet within several years, the Corcoran was back with grand designs to reinvent and right itself. The shelved office project morphed into a stunning proposed Frank Gehry-designed expansion. Instead of providing rental space, it would be devoted to allowing the college to grow. The architectural showpiece would lure tourists, and the fundraising campaign would cover renovation of the historic gallery.

By 2005, the dream was doomed when initial cost estimates of $60 million shot to $200 million. Meanwhile, the dot-com bubble had burst, erasing millions the Corcoran had been counting on from a new local wealthy class. The campaign raised a fraction of the money and the project was killed.

Director David Levy resigned, board members quit, donors withdrew pledges. When the dust settled, the Corcoran could keep only about $28 million. More than half went to pay Gehry for unused drawings. The rest evaporated into operations that were once again in the red.

John T. “Til” Hazel Jr., the board chairman at the time, said he was dismayed to discover how little financial support the Corcoran could muster.

“It wasn’t as if we didn’t try,” Hazel said. “I talked to a number of people who had the potential, and they just were not interested in the Corcoran.”

Hazel also engaged a museum development expert to study the donor market. The consultant reported back, Hazel recalled: “You have almost zero potential for raising money.”

The reason was the pool of major donors was smaller in Washington than in, say, in New York, and those funders could choose from “a lot more glamorous things to give to,” Hazel said. “You’re talking about the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, the Kennedy Center.”

In the shadow of those institutions, the mid-sized Corcoran must fund expenses that are more than double those at a more focused, smaller private museum such as the Phillips Collection, and five times those at the private National Museum of Women in the Arts.

A former trustee, now associated with another arts institution, said the Corcoran’s persistent inability to fund its wavering ambitions is because “we never had the fundraising machine that I have experienced with other arts institutions, and I think we haven’t had the fundraising base.” (This trustee and some other trustees and patrons interviewed asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly.)

“Large donors have migrated to parts of the Smithsonian that reflect more directly their individual interests,” said the former trustee. “And there is also within those institutions a national platform and a national reach. The Corcoran has been hampered by its lack of focus.”

Now the Corcoran once again is embarked on the interrupted endeavor of reinvention, refocusing and refinancing.

The solution?

Much of the leadership is new. Thirteen of the 15 trustees joined the board after the Gehry flop. Bollerer is the second gallery director since Levy left, and, at 70, he plans to retire this year.

The new crowd is contemplating the most dramatic — skeptics say self-destructive — solution of all to the riddle of rethinking the Corcoran.

“The destiny of the Corcoran should not turn on the building it sits in, but on what it does,” said Harry Hopper, chairman of the trustees.

To Hopper, a venture capitalist and contemporary art collector who joined the board in 2005, the Corcoran’s identity crisis dates to 1937 and the founding of the National Gallery, while its credibility crisis has been compounded by the misadventures of 1989 and 2005.

“I would say the Corcoran’s life changed when Paul Mellon agreed to fund and drive the National Gallery to a different level and the Corcoran didn’t really respond to or understand that for decades,” Hopper said. “It hasn’t presented a crisp and clear position in the cultural marketplace. We’re working hard to change that.”

The board voted June 4 simply to consider selling the building and relocating, but Hopper says preliminary estimates suggest it would be significantly cheaper to go rather than stay. However, he would not disclose the estimated profit on selling the building nor the potential cost of developing new space elsewhere.

The Corcoran has received multiple offers, according to gallery officials who would not identify the buyers. The gallery is hiring brokers to sift the offers and scout relocation options.

“And at the same time, we’re open to other alternatives,” Hopper said. “For example, we have had partnership and joint venture discussions, and we remain open to those.”

He declined to say what other institutions participated in those discussions.

He added: “If a funding alternative reveals itself that takes us on a path to stay in the building, we would love that.”

Weighing relocation is just one piece of the puzzle. The board’s contemplated solution to the Corcoran’s identity crisis is to focus the mission more emphatically on education. What this means in practice remains to be seen, but Hopper said it could be accomplished more easily in a larger, more flexible space.

Tuition payments to the art college now account for nearly 80 percent of the Corcoran’s annual revenue of $24 million — a dramatic increase from about 30 percent in the late 1990s. It shows that the college already is central to the gallery’s balance sheet. Hopper has said the financial strain would be eased if the student population, now capped at about 600 because of space constraints, could rise to more than 800.

Despite the refocus on education, the sale of the Corcoran’s 16,000 artworks is not under consideration, Hopper said. The gallery has a leading collection of 19th-century and early 20th-century American painting, and a major photography collection, among other highlights.

“The Corcoran can’t be the National Gallery, and the Corcoran can’t be a little boutique gallery located in a part of town that’s more convenient to the Northwest community like the Phillips,” Hopper said. “Our differentiator is that we’ve got a collection that has unique strengths, and we’re uniquely differentiated by having a degree-granting art college.”

Viability

Bold plans are one thing, but whether the Corcoran stays or goes, it still must figure out how to raise money. The recent record is dismal.

●Total fundraising for the last two fiscal years available ($3.2 million in the year ending June 2011; $4.4 million, June 2010) is the lowest since before 1995, the earliest year for which the gallery’s tax filings are readily accessible.

●The Corcoran has had budget deficits in seven of the last 10 years.

●The endowment has dwindled from $28 four years ago to $19 million because of investment losses during the recession, deficit spending and recalculating some lost pledges tied to the Gehry campaign.

●Membership is down to 3,800, after topping 9,000 late in the Gehry campaign.

●The number of visitors to the gallery has sunk below 100,000 for the first time in memory, dropping to 69,442 for the year ending June 30.

Hopper said this “quiet period” when fundraising and public engagement have faltered — and supporters such as Shanahan haven’t been solicited — “has been an unfortunate consequence of taking the time to put together a credible plan.”

The hit to the Corcoran’s credibility after the Gehry failure was paralyzing, he said. It was hard to start asking for money again. Internal operations had to be rebuilt.

Hopper said he hasn’t solicited major donations during this period, though he and his wife, Maria, have given $250,000 to $499,999, according to the Corcoran’s fundraising “honor roll.”

“If you’re going to go to serious people and serious foundations for serious amounts of money, seven-digit figures, you have to make your case for the cultural position of the institution, but you also have to show how in the bigger picture the viability question is answered,” Hopper said.

“That feels like a cop-out,” said Podesta, who said the Corcoran could have used the time better to reach out to the public for support and ideas.

To help make ends meet, the Corcoran recently sold the adjacent parcel — the one that was first to have been a rental property, then the Gehry expansion — for $20.5 million to an office developer.

Boards of trustees are critical fundraising engines for arts organizations. Most of the Corcoran’s trustees are relatively obscure to members of Washington’s more established social and philanthropic circles. “I don’t know them,” said more than one patron around town.

Trustees Carolyn Alper, Sarah Chapoton, Anne Edwards and Eleanor Hedden are recognized as arts advocates and longtime Corcoran supporters. Franco Nuschese is known as the owner of Cafe Milano. The rest include business and nonprofit types with a range professional and cultural connections that will enable them to raise and donate money, Hopper said.

“The board will step up as we go out to get sponsorship for this plan,” Hopper said. “We’re getting close to being able to distill out our strengths and communicate them more clearly.”

The wisdom of selling the building is hotly disputed around town on aesthetic, historic, sentimental and patrimonial grounds. The financial case for and against won’t be clear until a buyer’s money is publicly on the table and the price of relocating is known.

The Save the Corcoran group of artists and advocates for staying has collected more than 2,900 signatures on a petition “to halt this misguided effort to sell the Corcoran.”

Stay or go, the future will depend on the generosity of donors such as artist George Andreas, who with his family and foundation, has given more than $1 million to the Corcoran over the years.

“The present location, if they can do it, is best,” Andreas said. Still, he added, “I am very pleased with this new regime. They are practical; they want to be realistic.”

And it will depend on art patrons like Podesta, who noted: “The Whitney has moved. The Guggenheim moved. The Barnes has moved. Museums move all the time.

“I think the real question is: Is there a sustainable model going forward that could take advantage of the collection and the role that the museum plays in the community?”

A good question — one that has been asked and not answered for too long.

Roxanne Roberts, Jacqueline Trescott, Joe Stephens, and researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Eddy Palanzo, contributed to this report.

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