Corcoran’s proposal to leave historic quarters is laden with questions

Old Auntie Corcoran has been talking crazy for so long, nobody knows what she’s up to. But the latest news — that after decades of trying to find herself she wants to sell the family estate and move to a McMansion — is beyond bewildering. It suggests the need for an intervention.

In interviews Tuesday, museum insiders stipulated to many of the problems faced by the 143-year-old gallery and art school, including what could be a very expensive bill to update its 1897 Beaux-Arts building on 17th Street and New York Avenue NW. They acknowledged years of erratic leadership and a board of directors that has flailed about from crisis to crisis. The cumulative impact of becoming embroiled in the culture wars (a 1989 exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe was canceled after a political firestorm erupted), of having pursued and then abandoned plans to build a major addition by Frank Gehry, and of having lost at least two recent directors under less-than-happy circumstances has been crippling. These things don’t just demoralize staff, they create the toxic sense of a rudderless institution, which makes deep-pocketed supporters “run for the hills,” in the words of one observer.

But even with all that accumulated negative history, there is a collective sense that something about the current state of affairs simply doesn’t compute. Are things really so bad that the institution has no choice but to leave the center of Washington, sell off a building that is both a prize and a symbol of its collection, dilute its identity and focus on its art school? This is at best amputation, and very likely euthanasia, except euthanasia is supposed to be painless, while moving the Corcoran is likely to lead to a slow, excruciating demise.

The Corcoran is a major museum with a wonderfully rich collection, but it has grown distressingly remote from the larger museum community. Although the Corcoran belongs to the American Association of Museums, its director, Fred Bollerer, doesn’t belong to the Association of Art Museum directors. That’s a small thing, but emblematic of leadership that may be so focused on numbers that it has cut itself off from the best thinking available to an institution in trouble.

Largely absent from Monday’s announcement was any meaningful discussion of the greater role the Corcoran plays in Washington life, its roots and history, and the way its collection has been (and could again be) a treasured community resource. There is the impression that the current leadership thinks the Corcoran brand will simply follow, no matter where they move, and that the loss of cachet and the damage to its reputation can be amortized over a few years.


The Corcoran Gallery hosted a world-traveling exhibition of protest art, “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here,” last year. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

The Corcoran public relations office was swamped Tuesday, and top Corcoran leaders weren’t available for interviews. So much of what is puzzling about the news remains puzzling. How on earth did the institution spend $600,000 on consultant fees? Why, when many museums show only a fraction of their collections, did museum leaders say the fact that they can exhibit only 3 percent of the collection was a factor in their decision? Still confusing are the details of how a $35 million to $40 million estimate on necessary improvements given to The Washington Post in 2005 ballooned to $130 million in 2012. Why, if the institution wants space to expand its art school, did it parcel off its best hope of growth, an empty plot on New York Avenue, for an office building, without securing some floor space for the school?

And what can be made of the obtuse, consultant-speak gobbledygook in statements such as this one, from Board of Trustees Chairman Harry Hopper, explaining the institution’s desire to focus more on its art school: “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,” he told The Post on Monday.

You don’t have to read tea leaves to hear high-end jargon in action. In fact, while the Corcoran’s school is a beloved institution, it is arguably not the “key differentiator” in a region that also includes the highly esteemed Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. The Corcoran’s collection, with its deep holdings in American art, is at least an equal “differentiator in the cultural ecosystem” of the city, and is really the only claim to national distinction the larger Corcoran institution can make.

But leave those quibbles aside. It’s Hopper’s consultant-speak language that is disturbing. People who talk this way are often too much under the influence of a certain kind of blinkered, bottom-line thinking that prevails in the corporate world, and transfers very badly to the cultural milieu. Every important cultural institution in the United States faces almost insurmountable financial challenges every day, every year, decade after decade. The difference between the many that succeed and the few that fail is leadership, steady, enlightened, countercultural leadership that keeps an organization tacking upwind, no matter what happens to the economy.

The Corcoran chose drastic action, while there may be yet other possibilities to consider. One simple step is to bring total transparency to the decision and the discussions that led to it. Invite in other museum leaders to analyze the situation and the options. We need to know more about the psychology of the Corcoran’s board of directors, how much they each donate, how they define their commitment to the institution. They are the legal, but not the absolute, stewards of the institution. To use Hopperesque language, there are other stakeholders in Washington and in the larger cultural community to be considered.

And we need to know more about other options that were, or should be, on the table. It was deeply controversial when the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia — which in some ways was in a position analogous to the one the Corcoran faces — decided to change its governance, attract blue-chip donors and relocate to the center of Philadelphia. But the Barnes is back from the dead, adding inestimably to the cultural life of its city. Is it time for the Corcoran to find some way to be subsumed under the governance of another museum, or under the Smithsonian Institution?

No matter what the Corcoran chooses to do, it will need to build community and financial support for its actions. The problem with the decision is that once again it seems erratic and desperate, and will likely only close off more opportunities than it creates.

READ MORE

Controversy swirls around possible move

Breaking down the Corcoran’s financial problems

Corcoran to test market for sale of building

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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