June 8, 2012

The Corcoran Gallery of Art’s announcement that it will explore options for the sale of its historic Beaux-Arts building has raised concerns among its longtime supporters. Nevertheless, it is important to see this decision in context, not only of the Corcoran’s history and current circumstances but of cultural institutions in general.

The Corcoran’s original home, now known as the Renwick Gallery, was across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. It quickly outgrew this space and moved again in 1897 to its present location — still adjacent to the White House — on 17th Street and New York Avenue NW. During this period, its neighborhood was the epicenter of Washington’s social and cultural life, but this has changed dramatically over the years. The development of the Mall, the Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery has moved the locus of city tourism about a mile east, while street closures and tightened security have made the Corcoran increasingly inaccessible. So there is both precedent and possible justification for a decision, radical though it may be, to move the Corcoran from its prestigious address.

Last month’s move of the Barnes Collection to an exciting new building in central Philadelphia is a case in point. Its new location provides superb facilities for a priceless collection, making it accessible to audiences in ways never before possible. New York’s Whitney Museum has moved three times since its founding in 1930 and is about to do so again. Such moves reflect both the growth of these institutions and changes in the dynamic of their cities. Similar forces have affected the Corcoran.

The Corcoran, however, has a higher responsibility. Its great Ernest Flagg building is, without doubt, the single most important artwork in its collection. Internationally recognized as one of the finest buildings of its period and purpose-built for the display of art, its galleries, with their elegant proportions and abundant natural light, set standards of museum design for many years. It is therefore incumbent upon the Corcoran’s trustees and administration to ensure that any new owner respect the integrity of this work of architecture, even though such a condition might limit potential buyers to a very few. It would be a tragedy to see the Corcoran’s noble spaces converted to offices, hotel rooms or some other inappropriate and destructive use.

What, then, are the Corcoran’s alternatives? The answer is not simple, because there is more to the picture. First, the institution’s financial position is precarious, and it is almost certain that this emergency, rather than mission-driven or strategic thinking, is the basis of the current plan. Second, and unlike most museums today, the Corcoran is both a major museum and an important college of art. It thus preserves a heritage in which dedicated students and faculty work in daily contact with great art, profoundly enhancing the learning experience.

The difficulty, however, is that the Corcoran is surrounded by many of the best and most lavishly funded museums in the world. The combined budgets of the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution are well over $1 billion. And they do a superb job for their national and international audiences — for free.

In a city with such resources, where the federal government literally cuts the grass, it is extremely challenging for a private museum to build a constituency of supporters unless it positions itself differently from its publicly funded counterparts. The Frank Gehry addition developed for the Corcoran seven years ago would have been a giant step in that direction, transforming it into a must-see landmark destination while adding much-needed new space. A stunning contribution to the city’s urban fabric, it would have cost approximately $160 million, inclusive of the historic building’s renovation, and $110 million had already been raised. The abandonment of this project was a major mistake and set the stage for the current crisis.

But perhaps of more importance, the Corcoran needs to be Washington’s museum, serving this unique metropolitan region whose residents have the highest income and educational levels in the United States, while creatively reaching out to its inner-city neighborhoods. The Corcoran’s exhibition strategy of the past seven years — mounting conventional exhibitions that place it in head-to-head competition with the national museums, where it is vastly outgunned — has failed. This has resulted in dismal attendance and an annual deficit of $7.2 million, which, as its board and administration clearly understand, is unsustainable.

The Corcoran would do well to take a page from Sir Francis Drake, whose unlikely victory over the Spanish Armada was possible because his fleet was faster and lighter. That was the Corcoran’s mantra during my 14 years as its president and director, and I suggest that its current administration think hard about it now — before it even dreams of moving such an important part of Washington’s cultural and artistic legacy to the suburbs, where a lack of adequate constituency support, as well as visitors, are a guaranteed outcome. Whatever direction it chooses, the Corcoran must never lose sight of its primary mission, which, as its founder William Wilson Corcoran inscribed over its entrance, is “Dedicated to Art.”

The writer was president and director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Corcoran College of Art and Design from 1991 to 2005.