Corcoran Gallery began exploring options in July 2011


Exterior view of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran College of Art + Design, as seen on the corner of 17th Street and New York NW. (Courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art/COURTESY OF THE CORCORAN GALLERY OF ART)

Alexandria officials aggressively promoted the city’s waterfront as a possible location for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, starting nearly a year before Corcoran officials announced in June that the option of leaving the District was under consideration, according to internal e-mails among Alexandria officials and interviews this week with Corcoran executives.

Shortly before preliminary discussions with Alexandria began, gallery staff members had two meetings with economic development officials in the District in early July 2011 to discuss alternative locations, according to a timeline provided by the Corcoran. Exploratory meetings with Alexandria and the District, and also with a private land owner in Washington’s Fort Totten neighborhood, continued through this past summer, when the Corcoran also contacted officials in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, as well as the governors of Maryland and Virginia.

The new information shows that the financially struggling Corcoran began contemplating a move to a larger, more affordable space at least 11 months before publicly disclosing the deliberations and 11 months before the gallery’s board of trustees voted to authorize its staff to scout locations and to test the market for selling the Beaux-Arts landmark building on 17th Street NW, near the White House.

The board has been fully informed of the process since at least spring 2011, said Harry Hopper, chairman of the board, showing a reporter a document from a board meeting dated June 2011. Under the heading “Ideal Scenario,” the document listed “Stay in building.” Scenarios B and C were to sell the building and buy a property for renovation or build a facility.

A board vote was not necessary to authorize the preliminary outreach to the District and Alexandria, Hopper said, likening those conversations to staff members doing their “homework” on possibilities. The board’s vote in June marked the beginning of a formal phase that has included hiring a real estate broker to sift through offers and to vet locations.

The effort has yielded no concrete proposals; the broker has been at work less than a month. Corcoran executives say their priorities include staying in the building, if it is financially feasible, preserving the Corcoran’s legacy and forging a sustainable future for the gallery and its related Corcoran College of Art and Design.

Alexandria’s waterfront — the subject of the most speculative buzz on both sides of the Potomac River — seems increasingly unlikely, but Corcoran executives would not rule out any possibility.

“There’s nothing that has been brought to our attention that would be the basis for engaging with Alexandria,” Hopper said. “Yes, there were conversations with Alexandria, which, frankly, were driven more by them than by us.”

Officials in Alexandria agreed that the odds are against them.

“We view ourselves as a long shot, because we think the impetus is probably to stay in D.C.,” said Val Hawkins, president and chief executive of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, who has led the city’s courtship of the Corcoran.

Faroll Hamer, Alexandria’s director of planning and zoning, was more blunt in a June 4 e-mail, the day news broke of the Corcoran’s search, when she responded to an e-mail from Jeremy McPike, director of general services.

“Corcoran to waterfront?” McPike wrote.

“Can you imagine?” Hamer replied. “The sites don’t even have the necessary zoning. Not likely, I’d say. But what a kick in the pants.”

When Corcoran representatives met with Alexandria officials at their most recent and comprehensive discussion July 30, city advocates described the Robinson Terminal North as an option. That waterfront warehouse and a nearby property are owned by a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co. They are operational storage facilities and are not currently available, said Rima Calderon, a Post Co. spokeswoman. “We don’t know if or when a sale or relocation might occur,” she said. “Robinson Terminal is not currently marketing the properties for sale.”

Economic development officials from other jurisdictions say they have heard little from the Corcoran leadership following initial meetings.

“We’re kind of waiting for them to get back to us,” said Steve Silverman, director of economic development in Montgomery County.

Corcoran executives said their representatives have met multiple times with Victor L. Hoskins, deputy mayor to D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), or Hoskins’s staff, as recently as Sept. 21.

“We discussed Capitol Riverfront, Southwest Waterfront, St. Elizabeths and all of our higher-profile, larger projects as areas that they should consider if they relocate,” said Hoskins spokesman Jose Sousa.

From September 2011 through July, Corcoran representatives attended several meetings to discuss a property in Fort Totten in Northeast Washington that Corcoran President Fred Bollerer declined to identify. D.C. officials confirmed that it is the Riggs Plaza Apartments, a 1950s-era complex that is home to many low-income senior citizens. It is owned by the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, one of the area’s leading charitable institutions — which has given more than $1 million to the Corcoran over the years.

The Cafritz Foundation has long planned to redevelop the apartments into a larger project called “Art Place at Fort Totten.” Jane L. Cafritz, a member of the foundation’s advisory board, declined to comment.

Although officials in other jurisdictions say they feel somewhat in the dark about the proceedings, Alexandria officials seemed to have a good idea of what the competition would be by the time the Corcoran’s board took its action in early June. In a June 4 memo to Hawkins, Hamer and members of the city council, Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks wrote that he expected the Corcoran to “initiate a competitive site selection process with at least four sites (Alexandria waterfront at Robinson Terminal North, DC Waterfront along Maine Ave in the same neighborhood as Arena Stage, Rosslyn in Arlington on a currently vacant site, and National Harbor in Maryland).”

The owners of most of those properties, however, say they are unaware of any interest from the Corcoran or not in a position to accommodate the museum and its school.

“We’re not having any discussions with the Corcoran at this time,” said Monty Hoffman, head of the team developing the Southwest Waterfront along Maine Avenue Southwest in the District.

Angela Sweeney, spokeswoman for the Peterson Cos., owners and developers of National Harbor, said in an e-mail that the company had not been in contact with Corcoran leadership, but added, “we would be very pleased if they felt National Harbor was a potential location.”

Corcoran officials have made it clear that they would be looking for economic development incentives from jurisdictions to help underwrite any move.

The idea that the Corcoran would even consider selling the building has caused angst and anger in the local arts community and among some longtime supporters and employees.

Corcoran executives say that the search for alternative possibilities is just part of a larger process begun in October 2010, and one that they hope will, paradoxically, end in the Corcoran staying put, on a sounder financial footing.

Fall 2010 was when the board hired consultants and began a profound review of the Corcoran’s mission and ability to survive. By April 2011, Hopper said, the Corcoran had in hand an estimate that said it would cost $130 million to renovate the museum. The estimate did not include millions more needed to expand the college.

While developing a yet-to-be-unveiled rethinking of how to integrate the museum and college, the executives also had to figure out whether such an institution could remain in the current building.

“You can’t make an ultimate decision about the building unless you do some discovery about what the options are for the building, and what are the options in alternative locations that would accommodate your plan for the institution,” Hopper said.

Answers to all the questions appear to be months away. The timeline provided by the Corcoran says that a decision on the future direction — as well as on who will be the new director to replace Bollerer — will come between December and June.

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.
Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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