And so a decision made from the top wasn’t just unpopular, but perceived as peremptory, dictatorial and disenfranchising, and the result was a cascading sense of betrayal and alienation. In all four cases, the base of the organization reacted not with a dispassionate weighing of self-interest, but with the kind of family feud intensity that keeps grievances fresh for decades.
That, in some ways, may be the basic institutional problem of the Corcoran: It serves a collection of Corcoran families (local artists, students, art lovers looking for something more experimental than what is offered at more institutional museums), which is a source of strength, and often an impediment to focusing its mission. It has, like all institutions, made mistakes along the way, but for some reason it hasn’t been able to capitalize on the things it does right. Every wrong turn advanced it further toward isolation, dark progress that for some reason wasn’t remedied by many right turns. People stopped listening; donors turned away; audiences drifted elsewhere. And now, no matter what it does, it doesn’t get the credit it deserves when it does something right.
A case in point is the current exhibition devoted to the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn. It’s a very fine show, it looks spectacular in the Corcoran’s galleries and it demonstrates how vital the Corcoran can be if it remains focused on something missing from “the three c’s”: the city’s serious audience for art. Yet at a critical moment, when the Corcoran desperately needs people to rally behind it, the board of directors has indicated that it is seriously considering a move that would further alienate supporters of the museum. Board Chairman Harry Hopper, in an interview with Washington Post reporters, said he and the board “weren’t out pounding the pavement on behalf of the institution” until they have “a plan that makes sense.”
So even if a wildly successful Diebenkorn show prompted a flood of support for the institution, it’s not clear that it could be marshaled to preserve and build the Corcoran, another instance of the goodwill engendered by successful programming being squandered by leadership without vision. The Corcoran’s idealistic agenda focused on the community, the college and the collection is now in danger of being whittled down to just the college, leaving the collection without a landmark home, and the community again wondering what its relationship to the institution should and will be.