A Clean Canvas
Saturday, July 15, 2006
In his three months as director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Paul Greenhalgh has hit upon the perfect way to describe what the city's oldest art gallery and only art college should be. It's a shorthand that Washington will understand, and perhaps embrace.
The newcomer, immersed in art studies and management for most of his life, says the new model for the Corcoran should be a think tank. Move over, Brookings.
"I think one way to see the Corcoran is as an art research center, a think-tank-type organization," he says. The combination of a museum with a historic collection and a college is rare in the art world. "We are in a perfect situation here to be exploratory about the nature of visual arts, and that will be the way we carry ourselves."
But first, Greenhalgh, 50, has to put the Corcoran back on track. He was hired late last year, six months after the previous director, David Levy, left in a bitter tussle with the board. One factor was the collapse of the Corcoran's plan for a $200 million, soaring, swooping annex designed by the legendary Frank Gehry.
Greenhalgh put his stamp on the place a month before he arrived by dismissing three curators and two department heads. He's also scrapped most of the shows the museum had scheduled.
He is a man with strong ideas, and he's not concerned about finding a niche in a city full of museums.
"The critical mass of museums in the city helps everybody," he says. "The Corcoran's brief is to test the boundaries."
The first shows of the Greenhalgh era went up this week. All but four of the Corcoran's galleries are now filled with modern art, most of it from the museum's storehouse. The biggest show is this week's "redefined,"a continuation of the survey of the Corcoran's modern and contemporary art that opened Wednesday. Also opened this week is a colorful collection of photographs by Robert Weingarten, who took photos of the palettes of more than 20 artists, including Jasper Johns, Wayne Thiebaud, Ed Ruscha and Chuck Close. A White House News Photographers Association exhibit opens next week.
So art that might surprise, art that is unusual and a show that's definitely Washington are the Corcoran's new look.
"It is important the public knows we are busy" and reshaping things after 137 years of being a reliable, sometimes controversial place, Greenhalgh says.
Greenhalgh, whose name is pronounced "Greenhalsh," came to the Corcoran from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where he was president. There's a cordiality as well as a brusqueness to him. He leans forward when he talks, whether he is sitting in his office or standing in front of a painting. Born in Bolton, England, he studied in British art schools, specializing in the decorative arts. He has written seven books on culture. He headed the research department at the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London before going to Nova Scotia.
Wandering through the galleries, he points out that the peeling paint in the 25-feet-high ceilings is noticeable. An overhaul is in order.