By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 1, 2005
Paul Greenhalgh, a British scholar who heads an art school in Nova Scotia, will take over as director and president of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its College of Art and Design next year.
The appointment is part of a wrenching overhaul at the 136-year-old Corcoran after five years of bold plans and occasional turmoil.
Greenhalgh is best known in Washington as chief organizer of the highly successful Art Nouveau exhibition, which stopped at the National Gallery of Art in 2000.
He succeeds David C. Levy, the Corcoran's director for 14 years. Levy resigned suddenly in May as the board of trustees suspended efforts to build a wing designed by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry. Fundraising for the project had stalled, and the Corcoran had accumulated deficits in 17 of the past 21 years.
Jeanne Ruesch, chairman of the Corcoran board, said yesterday that Greenhalgh's appointment was a signal that the Corcoran, the city's oldest art museum, is turning around after a rocky stretch.
Greenhalgh, 50, is a specialist in the decorative arts and artistic movements from 1850 to 1940. Before he became president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in January 2001, he was head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the world's largest museum of decorative art and design.
"We are all absolutely delighted that we have found a candidate with such a unique set of skills. Paul Greenhalgh has headed up an arts college and played a role in an internationally recognized museum. He has extensive experience as an administrator, manager and scholar. He will move us forward as we assess our strategic direction," Ruesch said. The board considered 18 candidates.
"I couldn't think of a nicer coming together for me," Greenhalgh said yesterday, referring to his interest in museums and art schools. The Corcoran College of Art and Design, founded in 1890, is one of the oldest in the country. "For me the thing that is most interesting is that the students and faculties make the art and the galleries display the physical thing. Flipping back and forth with those who create now and having the masters on display makes it interesting," he said in a telephone interview from Halifax.
He said he had missed the museum side of things. "I had started to pine for it," he said.
"I started out to be a painter, but I also enjoyed being a historian and uncovering those issues. By the age of 30 it was only possible to do one thing properly," Greenhalgh said.
He was born in Bolton, England, near Liverpool. He earned an undergraduate degree in 1978 from the University of Reading and a master's degree in art history in 1980 from London's noted Courtauld Institute of Art, where he specialized in design, then an unconventional choice.
Greenhalgh (pronounced GREEN-halsh) is a collector of ceramics. He treasures a framed statue of one of his inspirations, writer Oscar Wilde, and a teapot in the shape of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's head. "It pours really well."
The Corcoran, like many museums, has faced hard times financially, but Greenhalgh said the Washington gallery's reputation is intact. "It is one of the world's great institutions. It is a household word on the other side of the Atlantic. We knew it was a great old collection. And the fact that it preserved the school and gallery was unique," he said. "It is part of the art world to structure, restructure, define and redefine."
The problems at the Corcoran are "eminently solvable," he says. "Anything is rescuable and will work in perhaps the most sophisticated gallery city in the world."
Ruesch said Greenhalgh didn't seem daunted by the problems. The museum's deficit for the current year is in the $1.5 million-$1.8 million range. "These are the challenges that he thrives on. He sees them as opportunities to understand the issues and develop a team that can help him with the vision," she said.
At Nova Scotia, Greenhalgh oversaw a rapid redevelopment and expansion. It is the only visual arts college in Canada that offers graduate degrees, and its enrollment has increased to 900 students. During his tenure, the college purchased its campus, which it had leased, and bought another building. Greenhalgh implemented a degree in film studies and reestablished the school's publishing house. He also continued his scholarly work. "The Modern Ideal: The Rise and Collapse of Idealism in the Visual Arts From the Enlightenment to Postmodernism," his seventh book, was released last month.
Since Levy's departure, the Corcoran's staff and trustees have conducted a review to get the museum back on course. They asked fundamental questions about the museum's identity. They looked at the school and how it ranks with other art colleges. The staff was given more information about the financial picture. All salaries were frozen until next July. Four people were laid off.
A final report on the findings was postponed until the new director is on board.
Things have gotten better at the museum, Ruesch said. It has added new members and increased corporate and individual donations. Two moneymakers -- the cafe and the gift shop -- have increased traffic.
During recent months the Corcoran has mounted a retrospective by Washington contemporary abstract artist Sam Gilliam. A recent Andy Warhol exhibition was underwritten by PNC Bank, and a show of some of the masterpieces from the Corcoran's 15,000 works was sponsored by Wachovia -- evidence the private sector supports the museum.
The Corcoran also spruced up, painting the first-floor walls chili pepper red, though the landmark building still needs $40 million in repairs.
In 1999, the museum announced plans for the swoopy, dramatic Gehry addition to give the institution a high profile in the international art community and cachet with tourists attracted by brand-name architecture.
The fundraising stalled, museum officials said at the time, because donations from the technology sector evaporated as the dot-com bubble burst. Fundraising was also hampered by post-9/11 caution among philanthropists and smaller donors who had to realign their priorities. During this period, Otto Ruesch, the board chairman and spouse of Jeanne, died. Northern Virginia developer John T. "Til" Hazel stepped into the chairman's post and examined the internal disarray and financial situation.
The board decided that the Gehry project had to be postponed. The museum had raised $95 million, including a $40 million pledge from the city. But the projected costs for the building and renovations of the original museum rose from an initial $60 million to $200 million. Jeanne Ruesch said yesterday that if the Gehry project is ever revived, it would be in the far distant future.
"I think we have to go through the strategic planning process. We have to reexamine what our niche is and we have to be clear what our priorities are. It is much too soon to take a position on that. We are not in a position to reopen the capital campaign."