Things are so bad, so broken in the larger Corcoran community, that what happens next should be framed as: The Corcoran Peace Accords of 2013. Every word will matter. Every gesture will be scrutinized and analyzed, often from a perspective of profound mistrust and skepticism. Only an entirely transparent process will succeed, and there must be fully empowered representatives of the faculty, student and alumni communities at the table, not just for symbolic cover, but with voting rights. It won’t be easy, because there may well be jobs at stake, and passions have been so inflamed since the Corcoran’s board of directors floated the idea of selling its landmark building last summer that the level of trust in the current Corcoran administration is zero.
But there is hope in the news that at least now the Corcoran has a survival plan. Even some of the most deeply skeptical critics of the Corcoran have good things to say about Peggy Loar, the woman who has been given the title consulting director and will play a large role in carrying out the proposed partnership. And the news of the new relationship, announced on April 3, also included other well-received ideas, including resurrecting the Corcoran Biennial, which was once a premiere international art event, but was discontinued in 2005 after a long and sorry decline. That the Corcoran will display work from the National Gallery of Art while the National Gallery’s East Building is under renovation may not be evidence of curatorial daring, but it makes more sense than showing it at the equally troubled Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (an idea floated last month). At the very least, it could be an inexpensive way to increase foot traffic into the often quiet corridors of the Corcoran.
And so, for a moment, there are glimmers of optimism to be found in this long, sad, frustrating story of cultural neglect and malpractice.
Atmosphere of distrust
But first, let’s hear from the skeptics. Linda Crocker Simmons served as a Corcoran curator for nearly 30 years and is still curator emerita. She says her distrust of the current leadership is so deep even some of her Corcoran friends wonder if she gets a little conspiratorial in her thinking. Simmons believes the Corcoran administration forced the current crisis, selling off institutional assets, driving the institution to the point where it would have no choice but to make a desperate decision: To chose saving the more financially viable college over the gallery.
“The Corcoran’s board has very clearly made a decision to change the mission and the emphasis of the institution, they are de-emphasizing the gallery, museum part and promoting the school,” she says. But Simmons, who speaks of the glory years of the Corcoran in the 1960s and ’70s, is pleased about the resumption of the biennial, and hopes the institution will reconnect to the city of Washington, and its own far-flung and passionately engaged alumni and former staff and faculty.
Wayne Reynolds, the wealthy philanthropist who made a quixotic but intriguing “white knight” effort to take over the Corcoran, first by courting the board, then after he was rebuffed, by directly engaging with students and faculty, is even more skeptical. He sees the proposed arrangement as a dismantling of the institution.
“They get total control of the collection, total control of ownership of the building,” he says of the University of Maryland. “They have given away all the assets,” he says of the Corcoran Board. He mourns the loss of the Corcoran’s independence, and given a paragraph in the Memorandum of Understanding between the two parties, there is real reason to worry. The language gives the University of Maryland the power to propose the president and members of the Corcoran Board, with this rather sweeping summation: “The total number of candidates as well as the candidate for Board chair — who are proposed by UMD and then nominated and elected by the Board — will be to the satisfaction of UMD.”
But when pressed on whether he could ever conceive of playing role in the Corcoran’s future, Reynolds said this: “As long as Harry Hopper is involved, no.” That leaves open the possibility that after Hopper, the current board chairman, leaves, Reynolds might be induced to play a role in the Corcoran’s future. Given his deep pockets, his exuberant interest in making a mark on Washington’s cultural life and his success in winning the trust of some of the most disaffected members of the Corcoran community, including the Save the Corcoran group, which led a heroic effort to keep the Corcoran in its current building, that is a very desirable prospect.
Not everything Reynolds proposed — including a plan to de-accession art — was wise, but he has energy, a drive to learn and good instincts, including this sad but entirely accurate assessment of the challenges faced by Loar during the transition: “Everything at the Corcoran is broken, it is a poisonous atmosphere, filled with intimidation and fear by the management. If she’s brave enough to take this on, God bless her. But at some point the poison has to be taken out of the institution.”
Now for the optimists, and Loar may be the most compelling of them. Loar has earned respect over a long career in museum work, and her résumé includes time atop the Wolfsonian in Miami Beach, a museum that merged with Florida International University in 1997. That experience with a hybrid museum-academic institution could prove valuable.
“We are in the honeymoon stage,” she says. The details are coming. But the pace is fast. U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh met with the Corcoran community the day after the plan was announced, and the university’s provost has also paid a visit to the D.C. college. Loar views the University of Maryland as a large resource center, capable of giving advice and assistance far beyond just academic matters of art and art history.
Loh is also an optimist, and forcefully rebuts the idea that the university is taking over, or even merging with the Corcoran. “Our job is not to micrcomanage,” he said in an interview Thursday. He also denied that the university will change the Corcoran’s emphasis away from its public museum role. He sees both U-Md. and the Corcoran pursuing “enlightened self interest” in the relationship, and when asked about the language in the memorandum of understanding that seems to give the university unilateral control over the Corcoran board, he said that is not the case. Although the university can propose members and the president, the Corcoran would have final say on whether they ultimately join the board. Everything, he insists, will be done with lots of consulting.
Very likely, the Corcoran will start outsourcing some of its administrative functions to U-Md., and very likely though no one is saying it, there will be fewer administrative people on the Corcoran payroll when the partnership takes effect. Loh said that there are administrative functions that might cost the Corcoran a dollar that could be done more efficiently by U-Md. for 20 cents. He also believes the museum’s annual debt, currently running about $8 to $10 million a year, can be retired “in about three years,” and he promised a capital campaign to fund the museum’s renovation.
Jayme McLellan of Save the Corcoran is still skeptical, and like many people, she is deeply concerned about the Corcoran’s loss of independence. But her suspicion is rooted in the Corcoran‘s lamentably highhanded and opaque leadership. “Had they not done what they’ve been doing over the last 11 months, had they had a credible process to begin with, this might look okay,” she says. That poisonous atmosphere Reynolds diagnosed has left her extremely wary. And yet, she had plans last week to meet with Loar, a good sign that Loar understands what needs to happen.
Which is peace, and a slow, steady, transparent trust-building process. Here’s how it should go: The Corcoran board should include a student, a faculty member and an alumni representative in all future meetings, as full board members as soon as that can be legally accomplished, and as observers until then. Harry Hopper, who may or may not be remembered in 20 years as the man who saved the Corcoran, should step down. As too many people have said, he’s toxic. Whether or not that’s his fault isn’t the issue. What matters is having the best person to build trust in that role, and clearly Hopper is too damaged to do it.
Loar, who has already demonstrated an admirable willingness to reach out to all parties, should be sure to remember the Corcoran’s past, to reengage the sometimes fractious and cranky larger Corcoran community. When Simmons, the curator emerita, was asked what she would do if she were still at the Corcoran, she tossed out two wonderful ideas: Start planning now for the Corcoran’s 150th anniversary in 2019 (something big, something that commits the institution to staying alive and being worthy of its legacy in six years), and start collaborating with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is currently rising on the Mall.
Good advice and worth hearing, evidence that Corcoran needs to learn how to do the most critical thing in any peace negotiation: Listen deeply.
Finally, the University of Maryland needs to study the history of enlightened patronage, the subtle balance between giving guidance and allowing freedom. It is now in the driver’s seat, and must demonstrate methodically and consistently that it will use its power in only a limited way. Wayne Reynolds, who is feisty and independent, should be on the university’s short list of proposed Corcoran board members.
The university is currently saying all the right things, that it wants the Corcoran’s independence, that it recognizes that it is a quirky place, with deep roots in Washington, and a fragile but fecund ecosystem of creativity. If it tries to mold the Corcoran in its own corporate, academic image, it will end up in control of everything about the Corcoran except what makes it the Corcoran.
In short, we have arrived at a delicate moment, and only the University of Maryland can do the right thing. The Corcoran is so dysfunctional it needs an intervention, which will come at the cost of its independence. But the goal should be the ultimate independence of the Corcoran under the university’s benevolent protection, with its gallery intact, its art collection intact, and its old spirit of creativity rejuvenated and reintegrated into Washington cultural life.