At the Corcoran, a history of big mistakes

David C. Levy, president of Sotheby’s Institute of Art, was president and director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran College of Art and Design from 1991 to 2005.

The deal struck this past week for the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University to take over the Corcoran Gallery of Art may save it from bankruptcy and make a number of choice works available to a wider audience. That would be a good thing. But it will sound the death knell for an institution that has been both symbol and substance for the arts in Washington and the nation for a century and a half.

There may have been moments when the Corcoran’s revival was possible — certainly I thought so during my 14 years as its president and director — but even assuming that the goals I pursued, such as the failed effort to add a Frank Gehry-designed wing , were attainable, the challenges were daunting. The subsequent attempt by the Corcoran’s current leadership to run it “like a business” resulted in escalating annual deficits to upward of $7.5 million, which, at almost 25 percent of its annual budget, led to the panicked selloff of important assets. This reduced the prospect of the Corcoran’s long-term survival to an unattainable dream.

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Gallery

The roots of this crisis go back more than a century. America’s third-oldest art museum and Washington’s oldest arts institution, the Corcoran was blessed with an extraordinary advantage from its establishment in 1869 until the opening of the National Gallery of Art in 1941. During these 72 years, it dominated the artistic life of this nation’s capital. This was a time when great collections were acquired, many of which found their way into the museums that were springing up in the country’s cities — themselves also coming of age. And the powerful collector-trustees of these nascent museums donated art and money, while aggressively soliciting their peers to join them in building collections that today form the foundation of America’s art patrimony.

Yet here in Washington, the Corcoran trustees did no such thing. Their failure to exploit the Corcoran’s privileged and unrivaled position as the only art institution in America’s seat of power created a gap that Andrew Mellon felt compelled to fill by founding the National Gallery, which he endowed with both its building and his personal collection. Thus, he instantly created the great national museum that the Corcoran could and should have been.

At the turn of the 20th century and for some years beyond, trusteeship in a city’s museum equaled membership in its most exclusive club. But museum boards in other cities, with institutions younger than the Corcoran — including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art — insisted that their members also be patrons and collectors committed to the museum’s artistic and cultural mission. A typical early trustee of the Met, for example, was art collector and financier J.P. Morgan. Meanwhile, well into the 1970s, Corcoran boards regarded the social catchet of trusteeship as an end in itself. The consequent absence of serious collectors from the Corcoran’s leadership during those years was a fatal flaw that has now come full circle.

Elsewhere, America’s early philanthropists and art patrons ensured the establishment of choice museum collections that today are as large as 2 million (the Met), 450,000 (Boston MFA) or 300,000 (the Art Institute of Chicago). But the Corcoran, despite its seniority and long-term dominance in our capital city, owns only about 1,900 paintings, supplemented by some impressive sculptures and a substantial archive of works on paper. This disproportionately small and artistically uneven collection is not competitive in the high-roller world of museum patronage and has discouraged serious philanthropy as well as the donation of works of art. (The collection’s $2 billion valuation put forth by the Corcoran’s current administration is highly improbable.)

Even more telling, the collection isn’t strong enough to attract a significant public audience, making the museum dependent upon innovative exhibitions drawn from other sources. Such efforts have recently been few and far between.

Not only were the great collections that changed hands in the 19th and 20th centuries lost by the Corcoran to institutions in other cities and later to the National Gallery and the Smithsonian, but seminal movements in American art, such as the emergence in the 1950s and ’60s of abstract expressionism, pop art and even the Washington Color School (which started in its own back yard!) were rejected. As one trustee of the time proudly boasted to me years later, “We didn’t want any of that cockamamie art.” The Corcoran’s leadership consistently failed to capitalize on periods of great opportunity — behavior that is indicative at best of cultural myopia and at worst of arrogant indifference to the institution’s mission.

These failures of vision and will hobbled the Corcoran artistically and financially. Most recently, almost two-thirds of its $30 million-plus budget was earned and spent by its college of art, leaving only $10 million to $12 million for the museum. (According to its recent IRS filings, less than 2 percent of its most recently reported budget was directly spent on exhibitions.) The Corcoran erroneously believed that it could mount shows that went head to head with the National Gallery, whose budget last year was $210 million, or with the Smithsonian’s five Washington-based art museums. Even the Phillips Collection, more than five decades the Corcoran’s junior and a boutique in comparative size, has outpaced it on almost every count because its leadership has consistently built on its founder’s prescient and coherent collection.

The dismal attendance at the Corcoran’s recent collection-based exhibitions makes it clear that its small core of choice 19th- and early-20th-century American paintings, though highly regarded by scholars, is of little interest to Washington area residents or our unique brand of visitors, who are not cultural tourists but modern-day pilgrims, mainly interested in visiting the sites commemorating their national heritage. Thus the Corcoran would need a collection with far more general appeal to achieve meaningful attendance.

There are some bright sides to the deal. The Corcoran’s 30 or 40 truly great works of art would be well cared for; they would be elegantly displayed and reach a large audience, while its college of art would gain increased and much-needed professional infrastructure.

In the end, however, this “solution” is a tragedy for the Washington area. Unlike the great museums in other cities, which serve global needs while reaching out to their local artists and residents — who, after all, pay their bills — Washington’s great museums are funded by Congress. And Congress has historically shown little interest, if not hostility, to the needs of the capital city and its region, much less to those of its vital arts community.

Given the Corcoran’s decade-long paralysis, its certain disappearance under the proposed arrangement may not seem much of a loss. But it is the sad end of a great, unfulfilled promise.

outlook@washpost.com

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