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Corcoran Director Quits; Trustees Shelve Gehry Plans

David Levy said he is stepping down at the Corcoran Gallery of Art because his differences with the board threatened to damage the institution.
David Levy said he is stepping down at the Corcoran Gallery of Art because his differences with the board threatened to damage the institution. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

Levy came to the Corcoran in 1991. Described in one Washington Post report as a "mild-mannered, bright-eyed art school dean from New York," he left the chancellorship of the New School for Social Research to take over an institution in crisis. His predecessor had first planned and then canceled an exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, the homoerotic content of which had drawn criticism from conservatives. The cancellation created a furor, enraging those who felt -- as did Levy -- that the Corcoran should have stood up for freedom of expression.

Levy's own exhibition record has received mixed critical reviews. The museum won praise for, among others, shows of photographs by Robert Frank and Sally Mann and for some of its Biennial exhibitions. But some Corcoran exhibitions in recent years have been panned with unusual ferocity. Post art critic Blake Gopnik objected strongly to "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years" -- arguing that the former first lady's dresses were celebrity relics, not art -- and called "Beyond the Frame: The Sculpture of J. Seward Johnson" the worst museum exhibition he had ever seen. A reviewer in Artforum denounced an exhibition by painter Larry Rivers in similarly strong language.

Talking last week about his years at the Corcoran, Levy noted that there are "two kinds of exhibitions," those designed to draw crowds and those more focused on artistic and scholarly excellence. Mentioning shows featuring the photographs of Annie Leibovitz and the paintings of Norman Rockwell as popular attractions he was pleased with, he also pointed with pride to a "beautiful and scholarly" one-room exhibition of paintings by an underappreciated American modernist.

"Nobody on the street ever heard of Francis Criss," he said. "People came and they were astounded by it."

In his own view, the recovery of the Corcoran after the Mapplethorpe fiasco has been one of the "extraordinary art world success stories."

Both Levy and members of the Corcoran board underlined the extraordinary bad luck the Corcoran had encountered since the Gehry project was launched: the bursting of the "new economy" bubble at a time when technology entrepreneurs were becoming increasingly important to its fundraising; the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and subsequent security measures that drove away potential visitors; and the untimely death of Otto Ruesch.

Levy said that he decided only yesterday morning to resign. His differences with Hazel and his supporters were "developing into a real fight," he said, the continuation of which would damage the Corcoran.

Ruesch said the board had passed a resolution thanking Levy for serving the Corcoran with "passion and distinction and dedication." But she also said that his overwhelming commitment to the Gehry wing would have made it difficult for the museum, under his leadership, to make the adjustments it must make.

Barring the emergence of an angel bearing $100 million, then, it appears that the Corcoran's Gehry dream is unlikely to come true. It lives on for now, though, in an architectural model -- on display in the lobby of the museum -- that draws admiration from the visitors who cluster around it. Last Saturday afternoon, one man motioned excitedly for his family to come take a closer look.

"It's really something!" he said.

Staff writers Jacqueline Trescott and Benjamin Forgey contributed to this report.

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