By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 4, 2006
The Corcoran Gallery of Art has dismissed three curators -- half the gallery's total -- and two other department heads in a restructuring announced yesterday. The moves come one month before Paul Greenhalgh takes over as the new director and president of an institution that has endured a difficult year trying to reimagine its future.
Greenhalgh announced the cuts at a meeting Thursday for staff and faculty of the gallery and its College of Art and Design. He characterized the moves as part of an effort to help redirect the 137-year-old institution, according to people who were present.
The laid-off employees include the gallery's chief curator, Jacquelyn Serwer. Also gone are the curator for prints and drawings and the curator of European art, according to people familiar with the cuts. That leaves the gallery with three curators who are responsible for American art, contemporary art, and photography and media arts. Greenhalgh said he would take on some chief curatorial duties for a while.
Also laid off were the manager of traveling exhibitions and the senior curator of education.
The actions raised questions that the Corcoran was not prepared to answer publicly yesterday: Does this mean a shift away from European art and prints and drawings? Does this mean the gallery will no longer mount traveling exhibitions? Will new people be hired with similar responsibilities but different job titles?
The gallery released a four-sentence statement that said the job cuts were "a minor restructuring of the institution to create additional efficiencies." It added: "For the Corcoran, this is not part of a larger downsizing plan."
Greenhalgh did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Corcoran spokeswoman Margaret Bergen said gallery officials and the board of directors would say nothing beyond the statement. The five people who lost their jobs either would not comment or did not respond to telephone or e-mail messages.
"It was devastating to everyone who was there," said one employee who was present at the meeting Thursday. But despite the pain of losing five colleagues in a relatively small institution, that person said, people were trying to look ahead. The challenge, the staffer said, is "to rethink the role of what the college and the gallery might be. . . . It's a view into the future and thinking about what the Corcoran can be in relation to other institutions in Washington."
The employee would not be quoted by name because of delicate feelings surrounding the layoffs. Others said they had been told by administrators not to speak to reporters.
Those at the meeting said Greenhalgh sketched a vision of finding ways to call more attention to the Corcoran and stressing the institution's uniqueness. The concept of a linked gallery and school of art is rare.
Greenhalgh himself, while not yet officially the director, recommended the layoffs in consultation with the board, according to the gallery's statement. Thus the layoffs are the first salvo of a new chief charged with something of a rescue mission. A painful period of upheaval began in May when the gallery's then-board chairman concluded that the Corcoran was in such dire financial shape that it must suspend plans for a new wing designed by Frank Gehry. The fundraising campaign to pay for the wing had fallen far short of its goal.
In strong disagreement with the decision on the Gehry wing, then-Director David C. Levy resigned. He had been hired in 1991, during the Corcoran's last big crisis: a furor that erupted after the gallery announced -- and later canceled -- plans to exhibit homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Greenhalgh is a British scholar who most recently directed the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. He is a specialist in the decorative arts and artistic movements from 1850 to 1940. Washingtonians may remember a successful art nouveau exhibition he organized that traveled to the National Gallery of Art in 2000.
The Corcoran reported a deficit of $1.5 million to $1.8 million for the fiscal year that ended in June. Since then, the gallery has implemented some money-saving moves, such as closing on Mondays and freezing salaries.
But people familiar with the layoffs were at pains to say they were more about doing things differently than strictly saving money. Indeed, the Corcoran's Web site indicates that it intends to hire two additional teachers for the college.
Greenhalgh told his audience Thursday that he didn't want any more red ink at the Corcoran. But while saving money, he is also apparently hoping to chart a somewhat new course, the direction of which has yet to emerge.
Staff writers Blake Gopnik and Kate Wichmann contributed to this report.