Corcoran Could Clip Its New Wing

By Bob Thompson and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 20, 2005

The Corcoran Gallery of Art's chairman said yesterday that the 136-year-old institution is in such serious financial straits that it should suspend efforts to build its much-heralded new wing, for which architect Frank Gehry has already completed a design, and replace its longtime director.

The future of architect Frank Gehry's plan for a new wing for the Corcoran has triggered a leadership struggle at the venerable institution.
The future of architect Frank Gehry's plan for a new wing for the Corcoran has triggered a leadership struggle at the venerable institution.( - Gehry Partners, LLP)
The suspension of the Gehry effort could come as early as Monday, when the board is scheduled to discuss a new strategic plan for the Corcoran. "In the foreseeable future, there's no choice," board of trustees Chairman John T. "Til" Hazel said, citing broad financial difficulties facing the Washington landmark, which includes both the museum and the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

Hazel said he and fellow trustee Paul Corddry approached President and Director David C. Levy earlier this week and suggested he offer his resignation.

Levy declined. The heart of the disagreement, he said, was that "I believe this city and region can support the campaign to get that building built, and they don't." He said Hazel and Corddry had approached him "without full consultation of the board leadership." But Levy, who has led the Corcoran since 1991, also said he would step aside if a bitter fight developed over his leadership.

Not a Pretty Picture
"I'm not going to be a spoiler," he said. "I have too much respect for this institution."

The Corcoran announced its plan for the Gehry wing with great fanfare in June 1999. It was a bold stroke for a museum with a severe identity problem, and one that faced tremendous competition from larger, better-funded public entities such as the National Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution.

The hope was that adding a wing by the celebrated Gehry -- whose undulating, titanium-skinned Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, had grabbed so much attention that people began referring to "the Bilbao effect" -- would turn the old, gray Corcoran, with its small but choice collection of primarily 19th-century American art, into a must-see destination. It would raise the museum's visibility and attendance while doubling, Levy said, as "maybe the greatest piece we have in our collection."

Six years later, the Gehry dream shows little sign of becoming reality. Fundraising has stalled. A $40 million pledge from the District of Columbia last July was expected to spur other major contributions. So far, it has not.

Close to $95 million has been pledged for the Campaign for the Corcoran (which includes elements other than construction of the Gehry wing). Almost half of that, however, is contingent on the construction of the wing being either launched or completed (including the District's $40 million). So far, $17 million has been spent on construction plans (with the bulk of that going to Gehry) and $5 million more on fundraising costs. Meanwhile, Hazel said, building cost estimates have risen from an unrealistic $60 million to $200 million.

In large part, Levy and Hazel agree, the Corcoran has been victimized by what Levy called -- in what sounds like an understatement -- "a serious run of bad luck."

First, the so-called new economy bubble burst, ending a euphoric period in which, Levy said, Internet entrepreneurs "were making money in options that looked like they were playing Monopoly."

Two important early contributions to the Campaign for the Corcoran came from AOL executives Robert W. Pittman and Barry M. Schuler, who jointly pledged $30 million in February 2001. The Corcoran has received only $2 million of Schuler's $15 million pledge and doesn't expect more to be forthcoming. More importantly, hopes have dimmed for additional large contributions from new-economy entrepreneurs.

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