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.