Corcoran Director Quits; Trustees Shelve Gehry Plans

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

David C. Levy resigned yesterday as president and director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The Corcoran's board of trustees, meanwhile, suspended the museum's efforts to build a new wing designed by architect Frank Gehry, for which fundraising largely has stalled.

"If you don't have your money, you can't build it," said board Chairman John T. "Til" Hazel. "And we can't afford the enormous cost of fishing trips until we find a better way to target the donor base that we really need."

In a prepared statement, Levy told the board that the 136-year-old Washington institution had "made a great deal of progress over the 14 years of my tenure," adding that "we are on the brink of securing the Corcoran's future for generations to come." He acknowledged that completing the Gehry project was an "enormous challenge," but he disagreed strongly with the board's decision.

"Publicly 'suspending' the Gehry campaign," he said, "is tantamount to declaring it dead and buried."

Levy had been under pressure from board members who felt that his focus on the Gehry project had kept the museum from addressing other pressing needs.

The board also moved to begin developing new operational and strategic plans for the museum. Included will be a reexamination of the Corcoran's "mission and identity" and a plan to deal with persistent operating deficits and necessary renovations to the museum's existing Beaux-Arts building on 17th Street, which was built in 1897 and which requires, Hazel said, $35 million to $40 million worth of repairs. The repairs were to have been part of the broader Gehry project. Hazel said the museum would ask the permission of donors to redirect their money.

In addition, the board elected Jeanette Ruesch -- a former executive of the financial services company Ruesch International and the widow of former Corcoran board chairman Otto Ruesch -- as its new chairman, with Hazel becoming vice chairman.

Ruesch, Hazel and strategic planning committee head Paul Corddry said that the Gehry effort could be revived if one or two large donors came up with $100 million.

Architect Gehry, reached while traveling in Italy, said that businesspeople on museum boards sometimes overreact to financial problems "because they're used to keeping companies in the black, and when they see red ink, they don't understand that's the way every museum in the world is." With the push for the new wing suspended, the architect wondered, "How are they going to find another director of any significant kind?"

It is unclear how the Corcoran's donor base will respond to the news of the project's suspension and Levy's departure. But Olga Hirshhorn -- a leading art collector who has been involved with the Corcoran since 1977 -- said yesterday she was withdrawing a significant gift to the museum because of its treatment of Levy. Hirshhorn, who has already given the museum hundreds of artworks, said she was canceling plans to donate her remaining art holdings, as well as one-third of her residuary estate.

The Gehry project was launched with great fanfare in June 1999. The hope was that commissioning a wing by the celebrated architect, whose stunning Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, had become a tourist mecca, would help the Corcoran stand out in a city crammed with competing art museums.

Drawing crowds and establishing an identity were only part of it, however. "A museum should regard its building not simply as a receptacle where you put art, but as a work of art itself," Levy explains in a celebratory video called "Mr. Gehry Goes to Washington" that has been playing over and over near the Corcoran's main entrance.

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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company