The Corcoran’s transformation effort: What five experts think

November 9, 2012

The plight of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, as it struggles to forge a sustainable future, reflects the broader challenges of managing nonprofit cultural institutions in uncertain financial times.

Rarely is the issue simply a lack of funds. Budgetary health is intertwined with the need for compelling programming and a cogent sense of mission.

The Corcoran announced in June that it is studying the controversial option of selling its historic Beaux-Arts home near the White House and moving to more affordable, flexible space somewhere else. At the same time, Corcoran leaders are searching for a new top director. And they are re-imagining the relationship between the gallery and the Corcoran College of Art & Design. The new vision, they say, will engage the public and attract donors.

Five outside experts share their views of how such transformations can work.

James E. Canales

Canales is president and chief executive of the James Irvine Foundation.


Detroit Institute of Arts director Graham Beal. (Paul Sancya/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Having served on and chaired many nonprofit boards, as well as having been chief executive of a large foundation for nine years, I know that when partnerships between a nonprofit’s board and its chief executive work well, they create the conditions for high performance. A constructive partnership:

• Fosters engagement by the board. As the fiduciaries and stewards of the organization’s public trust, boards must be actively engaged in the key strategic issues facing the organization. As such, it is incumbent upon CEOs to shape board agendas in ways that create opportunities for board members to understand those issues, ask questions about strategic directions and then add value to the work of the organization.

• Ensures open lines of communication. Engaging — not managing — the board is one of the primary responsibilities of a CEO. That begins with frequent and candid communication that seeks the board’s involvement at the right level. If open, honest, two-way communication does not exist, the risks of miscommunication or misinterpretation are far higher.

• Demonstrates mutual respect. Far too many board/staff relationships are characterized by an “us vs. them” mentality. Staff sometimes view boards as an obstacle or necessary evil, and boards sometimes micromanage or second-guess staff decisions. That’s not a good starting point for a constructive partnership. The CEO plays the key role in setting the right culture in this regard. If mutual respect is lacking, it is worth asking whether the right people are engaged on each side of the relationship.

• Like any human relationship, the board/CEO partnership requires both parties to devote the time and care to cultivating and sustaining a high-functioning partnership. When done properly, the results for the organization and — more important — those it serves will have been well worth the effort.

Rebecca Hubert Williams

Williams serves on the boards of the Lantern Theater Company and the Duke Libraries.

Whenever a nonprofit such as the Corcoran faces financial challenges, eyes turn to the board of trustees and the role that its members — many from the business world — have played.

I recently found myself in the position of many such well-intentioned migrants from the for-profit world: I had reached a point in my career where I wanted to devote some energy to the arts but had no reason to believe that my skills were directly translatable to an institution whose mission was more about art than about quarterly earnings or shareholder value. Luckily, I joined a theater board with a tradition of training at the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center. In October, I was the third trustee to make the pilgrimage to the Intensive Board Development seminar created by Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser to boost people like me up the learning curve he scaled as a businessman new to the arts 30 years ago.

Kaiser’s core “cycle” theory was easy to grasp, if not completely intuitive: Cost-cutting is not the way to financial health for a struggling arts institution because it creates a downward spiral of disappointment, he argues. The recipe instead is investing in great art and then marketing the programs and the institution assiduously. This strategy helps to build an extended family of supporters from which ticket sales and contributions readily flow.

In the interest of becoming better stewards of our nonprofits, those of us in the sold-out crowd at the two-day seminar also stayed awake to hear talks about the nuts and bolts of fundraising, “generally accepted accounting principles” and 990 tax filings.

The list of seminar attendees bodes well for the arts and the wider nonprofit world. It included representatives from 90 performing arts companies, museums, educational institutions, churches and other organizations from across the country.

At the Lantern Theater in Philadelphia, we have adopted Kaiser’s philosophy and invested first in the vision of the artistic director and second in marketing and community building. The results have been gratifying in the past few years despite the recession, a healthy competitive environment for live arts in Philadelphia and ever-expanding options for free entertainment online.

Graham W.J. Beal

Beal is director, president and chief executive officer of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

There’s no one recipe for rescuing a threatened art museum. When I agreed to be director of the failing Detroit Institute of Arts in 1999, I knew I faced a challenge, but I sometimes joked that the DIA’s situation wasn’t as bad as the Corcoran’s — stranded in a “hostile” environment of multiple free art museums, with no clear mission and an inadequate operating endowment.

One year before I arrived, the private support arm of the city-owned DIA signed a 20-year operating agreement with the city to run the museum as a private charity. The facility needed complete renovation; programming was suffering from state funding cuts earlier in the decade; and surveys showed most citizens regarded the DIA as irrelevant to their lives.

I was drawn to take on the challenge by the board’s desire to reconnect the museum to the community and by my own conviction that we needed to rethink how art in the galleries was presented to the public. In 2002, we embarked upon a reinstallation plan that created small, thematic special exhibits based not on art history but on such shared human experiences as eating, getting dressed, worship and vacationing. We also began to advertise the DIA as an institution open to all and full of surprises.

The “New DIA” that opened in 2007 was embraced by the community to such an extent we were able to get on the ballot — and pass — a property tax measure in three adjacent counties, the proceeds of which are to be dedicated to the DIA, providing financial security not seen for decades.

There may be no one recipe for success, but all aspects of these activities — artistic and political — relied on a few basic ingredients that are relevant to the DIA, to the Corcoran and to any other struggling art museum’s success: a board committed to change, a clear mission, articulate executive conviction, an expert staff open to pursuing new ideas and relentless fundraising.

Olga Viso

Viso is executive director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Institutions must evolve, not simply to survive but to command their futures. While I feel far too removed from the Corcoran to comment with authority, what I can do is offer an inspiring model of re-imagination outside Washington: the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

This institution, which I now have the privilege to lead, has boldly reinvented itself twice in its nearly 140-year history. Located in the home of philanthropist T.B. Walker, this first public art gallery east of the Mississippi opened its doors free of charge to residents of a pioneer American city by showcasing Barbizon and Hudson River School paintings and Chinese jades. In 1939, the Works Progress Administration harnessed community will to create a model regional art center. Renamed the Walker Art Center, the institution reframed its mission to support living artists and engage new audiences. Over the next several decades, as other cultural institutions in the area gained strength and focus, the Walker shifted its priorities and in 1971 reopened its doors as a multidisciplinary art center committed to collecting and commissioning some of the most groundbreaking art of our time.

The Walker today is one of a handful of art centers in the world that presents the visual, film and performing arts in one facility. It joins the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Hirshhorn as one of the five most visited museums of modern and contemporary art in the country. In 2012, the Walker’s collections and facilities resemble little of T.B. Walker’s 1879 vision and holdings. Indeed, most of the founding donor’s works of art were dispersed to other museums in Minneapolis or sold, and now more than 90 percent of the Walker’s holdings consist of art made after 1960.

Cultural institutions thrive when there is strong alignment between the staff and the board and when dynamic synergies exist with the communities an organization serves. This has been part of the formula of success at the Walker, where an enlightened founding family also remains involved.

Over the past several decades, the Corcoran has suffered periods of misalignment as a succession of leaders and donors — each with radically different directions and agendas — have attempted to galvanize support, redirect the institution and find new synergies in a vastly competitive museum landscape and in a community that has, in many ways, resisted its evolution.

Harry Philbrick

Philbrick is museum director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

One hundred and thirty miles northeast of the Corcoran, I work for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), a similar hybrid institution, which has also faced existential challenges. Both PAFA and the Corcoran are museum and school, school and museum. Our path is illuminated by one overriding principle: Institutional greatness comes if you acknowledge what you are and embrace it.

A dozen years ago, with our landmark museum building on the wrong side of town and an art school in an inadequate facility, we faced a perilous future. Yet, with the determined leadership of a committed board, in 2005, our 200th anniversary, we celebrated the opening of a new school facility contiguous to our landmark building, and we are fortunately enjoying a gathering swell of redevelopment in our part of town. We still face financial challenges, but they are manageable, and we are aggressively tackling them.

The Corcoran, like PAFA, has little chance of being the biggest art school in the nation, or even the most comprehensive museum in its city, but it can be the best of both. This allows a unique and exceptional relationship to the creation and display of art, and for the work of artists of the past to be animated by the presence of today’s established and emerging artists.

Like PAFA, the Corcoran is inextricably linked to its location: It has a rich and storied engagement with the history of the District. In 1869, five years before the gallery’s official opening to the public in the old Renwick building, the Corcoran hosted a fundraiser for the Washington Monument. That iconic structure took more than 50 years to complete; getting it right is often a complex and torturous path. The Corcoran must get it right and stay in its fabled Flagg building — and indeed celebrate it by making it a destination in and of itself.

One other episode from the Corcoran’s past is instructive. It is easy to imagine how impossible it must have seemed in 1989 to stand behind the exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial and disturbing photographs in the face of withering condemnation from funders and congressional critics, but the decision to cancel that exhibition still clouds the Corcoran’s reputation.

I hope the Corcoran’s leaders will make the hard choice to stay where they are and lean into the long-term, prosaic work of controlling the budget and raising funds and friends.

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He currently writes general features and profiles for the Sunday Magazine, Sunday Style and Sunday Arts, with a focus on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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