‘Save the Corcoran’ campaign opposes proposed sale of museum’s historic site


From left, Muriel Hasbun, Chair of the Corcoran Photography Department; Andy Grundberg Corcoran Associate Provost; and student Jaqueline Ionita voice concerns about the college's move out of the downtown area. (Daniel C. Britt/THE WASHINGTON POST)

An emergency meeting of artists, convening under the slogan “Save the Corcoran,” began the push-back Thursday evening against plans to consider selling the landmark Corcoran building on 17th Street NW and moving the gallery elsewhere in the area.

As a microphone was passed around the room, and the proceedings were aired via a Web video stream and live tweets from @savethecorcoran, speaker after speaker professed love for the Washington’s oldest private art museum and disdain for the board of trustees, which voted unanimously Monday to put the 1897 Beaux-Arts gallery on the market.

“We’re all in agreement that we love the building, and we hope it can be creatively re-imagined in some way,” said Jayme McLellan, a Corcoran adjunct faculty member who hosted the meeting of about 75 at her Civilian Art Projects gallery on Seventh Street NW.

Senior fine-arts photography student Tom Pullin seconded: “We’re all pretty much in agreement that we want the school and the museum to stay in that building — without fiscal mismanagement.”

The tone was less confrontational than when artists marched and boycotted the Corcoran in 1989 after the gallery notoriously yielded to criticism over explicit content and canceled an exhibit by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

“Some of the Mapplethorpe people said, ‘Bring out the banners!’ ” McLellan said Thursday. “Times have changed.”

For now, the artists appeared hopeful that they could use social media to garner support, then influence the board by proposing creative solutions. If that didn’t work, ridicule would always be an option: One idea was to hold a bake sale outside the gallery, with everyone dressed as clowns wearing buttons that said “Board Member.”

“You don’t put an art gallery in a cornfield,” said Roberta Faul-Zeitler, who was a public relations executive for the Corcoran in the ’80s.“It’s not going to make it in Laurel, Maryland, or Old Town Alexandria if it can’t make it in Washington, D.C.”

Leaders of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the conjoined Corcoran College of Art and Design say they have no choice but to consider moving. In the year ending last June, the institution posted a $7.2 million deficit. The old building would cost at least $100 million to bring up to contemporary museum standards, and even if that money could be found, the building is too small for the gallery and the school, according to Corcoran President Fred Bollerer and board Chairman Harry Hopper.

The artists’ overarching complaint is that the board reached its bombshell decision without consulting them and has yet to share detailed reasons for a move.

“The community of stakeholders, everyone in this room, was not consulted,” McLellan said.

After the meeting, Hopper responded in an e-mail to The Washington Post: “The board’s process to date has included multiple forums for internal input, as well as convening eight advisory panels with over 60 experts from the arts and education community, a number from the D.C. area. No final decisions have been made to sell the building or move our location. . . . Input from stakeholders will be gathered before any final decisions are made.”

Kristin Guiter, the Corcoran’s vice president of communications and marketing, attended the meeting as a representative of the leadership.

“They have heard the public outcry, and I think everyone should stay tuned,” Guiter said. She said Corcoran management would be willing to meet some Save the Corcoran members.

Nearly everyone in the room had some Corcoran connection. There were students and alumni, supporters and nearly a dozen faculty and staff members.

None of the college staffers raised a hand when McLellan asked who was in favor of selling the building.

In interviews later, however, several declined to take a strong position on the potential move.

“As a college, we do need more space,” said Muriel Hasbun, chairman of the photography department. “The question is: How do we preserve the important cultural legacy while at the same time having the space and the resources to grow and provide the excellent education that we provide? [Corcoran leaders] need to hear what the community can come up with. We are a creative bunch, after all.”

The meeting’s attendees agreed on further steps, including delegating a committee to meet with Corcoran executives, researching the financial straits, engaging more supporters and brainstorming ideas for better management and fundraising.

Perhaps what’s called for is a back-to-the-future blockbuster, McLellan mused.

“Maybe the Corcoran should embrace its controversy,” she said. “Start with a Mapplethorpe show.”

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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