Top of the Hay at the Hay-Adams, the ballroom known for its sparkling views of the White House and downtown Washington, is typically reserved for after-parties. After the wedding, after you’re chairman or, in the case of former CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, after you’ve been sentenced to 30 months in prison. But Wayne Reynolds throws parties before making big announcements.
Reynolds, the bold and polarizing philanthropist vying for the chairmanship of the Corcoran Gallery of Art board — which isn’t technically up for grabs — held a gathering on Friday for himself and 300 guests to discuss his vision for the gallery and the related Corcoran College of Art and Design. Art students and patrons buzzed around the ballroom, indulging in spirited rounds of questions and rounds of beer and wine from the open bar. (The event had an approximately $10,000 price tag, which Reynolds was more than happy to pay.)
In his speech, Reynolds told supporters that the Corcoran approached him first last year, and he met with faculty and board members believing he would be tapped to help. He says that he has since been shut out and that many board members have been told not to meet with him.
Reynolds said he expects the Corcoran to announce next week that the school will be collaborating with or absorbed by another educational institution.
“I think they have a deal with Maryland,” Reynolds said to gasps from the crowd, “which is remarkable because few on the board know about it.”
Mimi Carter, a spokeswoman for the Corcoran, declined to comment on Reynolds’s event but issued a statement about his assertion that the school may be partnering with another educational institution.
“As previously reported, the Corcoran is discussing possible collaborations with other institutions to secure a sustainable future for the Gallery and College,” Carter said in an e-mail. “The Corcoran will not comment on rumor or speculation about these discussions. The Corcoran will issue an announcement when its own board and the board of a partner institution have formally reached an agreement.”
Corcoran Chairman Harry F. Hopper III hasn’t commented on Reynolds’s statements, but some of his peers in the art world have expressed amazement.
Reynolds’s dramatic overture, sponsored by the activist group Save the Corcoran, raised eyebrows among some Corcoran management and board. In previous reports, Carter said Reynolds’s actions amounted to a “reckless publicity campaign waged against the very institution he seeks to appoint himself to lead.”
Reynolds marketed the event as a forum to share his vision for the gallery and its school, which have struggled financially in a town of federally funded museums. The e-mail went out to interested parties and students last week. Despite the event’s location in the relatively formal panoramic penthouse, the meeting felt more like an educational forum (although, yes, a buffet of roasted turkey breasts and root vegetables was served).
Reynolds answered questions for nearly 30 minutes from a mostly sympathetic audience. He addressed what some have called his controversial plan to raise money for an endowment by deaccessioning, or selling, works of art, saying his plan would only account for around $100 million of $2 billion of artwork.
“I don’t want to to sell off the collection,” he assured the attendees.
More esoteric prompts included questions concerning Reynolds’s brand of creativity. He answered each questioner candidly and encouraged attendees to approach him throughout the evening.
“I’m on a listening tour,” Reynolds said. “I’m not an art person. I’m just someone who knows what to do.”
Some attendees appreciated Reynolds’s willingness to discuss his vision. Janis Goodman, a professor of fine arts at the Corcoran, spoke about the lack of representation of the college on the board. “It’s inexcusable,” she said, calling the leadership’s perceived silence akin to “a good old boys’ tradition.”
Reynolds also said he would push for the creation of a Corcoran Center for Creativity, where he would expand the scope of the college and its digital and contemporary art classes. Undergraduate tuition at the school is just over $30,000, and some students believe that Reynolds’s vision would benefit their educational needs.
“I support Mr. Reynolds or someone like him because he has a vision for the school,” said Lorenzo Cardim, a junior who spoke at the event.
Reynolds was candid about his aspirations: He reiterated his message that he should be tapped as chairman of the Corcoran’s board to change the course of the private gallery housed in a Beaux-Arts building across from the White House on 17th Street and New York Avenue NW. Reynolds has a reputation for bold statements. He is the husband of philanthropist Catherine Reynolds, who has given more than $100 million to arts and education-related causes. In 2002, she withdrew most of a $38 million donation to the Smithsonian after her plan to build a hall of achievement commemorating inspiring figures was met with resistance from curators.
The most notable moment of the evening, aside from the mini crab-cake sliders and clear views of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, was the fact that it happened. The move struck some in Washington, where lobbying efforts for board positions are normally settled in boardrooms, as brazen or downright odd. But the event, which received approximately 340 RSVPs, included supporters, faculty members and leaders of other art galleries.
Reynolds’s defenders note that when he was the chairman of Ford’s Theatre, he was credited with raising $54 million for a capital campaign, an unprecedented amount for the historic theater. Supporters of Reynolds say that this fundraising savvy couldn’t hurt the Corcoran, which had a $7 million deficit in 2011. According to previous reports, the deficit would have occurred last year but for the $18.8 million sale of a parking lot.
Hopper and the board have been working on a solution to the problem for more two years, and ideas are on the table. Some are expected to surface next week, since the next meeting of trustees is April 3.
The best possible outcome of the event for Reynolds?
“I want the board to do what needs to be done,” he said, noting that naming him chairman would be the ideal outcome. “They approached me in November. . . . I’m the only one who’s come forward to help.”
David Montgomery contributed to this report.