Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article misstated the position that Kirk Pillow, interim president of the Corcoran College of Art and Design, is leaving to take at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He is becoming provost, not taking the university's top job. This version has been corrected.
The Corcoran, re-imagined

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; C01

Beset by years of financial troubles, leadership changes and a drifting sense of identity, the Corcoran Gallery of Art - Washington's largest private art museum - is turning to a team of consultants in an attempt to chart its destiny.

The venerable institution has hired Lord Cultural Resources, a Toronto-based strategy firm, to come up with solutions for the museum and its educational arm, the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

"I felt fairly sure six months ago that we needed to bring to the table a group of experts that every day are dealing with what is going on around the world in the evolution of art, not just fine or visual arts," Fred Bollerer, the Corcoran's director and president, said Tuesday.

The Corcoran, located near the White House, is one of a few museums in town that charges admission, $10 for adults on most days. Although it possesses a strong collection of 19th- and 20th-century American and European art as well as a deep collection of photography and decorative arts, other Washington museums have similar holdings.

Despite steady attendance in 2010 and several successful shows, the museum remains mired in financial struggles. And both the museum and the college have been hampered by a lack of permanent leadership. In May, Paul Greenhalgh, the director of the museum since 2006, announced he was leaving; in late December, interim college President Kirk Pillow said he was becoming provost at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Bollerer, formerly the chief operating officer, stepped in as museum director in May.

"We have spent an awful lot of time thinking about the Corcoran," he said. The questions remained: "How do you make the museum a better museum? How do you make this a better school? We have to examine the assets we have and deploy them in something that is unique for the city."

Shaking up the Corcoran is not a new goal, but more and more, the education aspects are highlighted, leading many to believe that a college with an art gallery might be the future.

"One of the things I told Lord and people in the institution is not to presume an answer," Bollerer said.

The Lord contract was first reported on last week by Jason Edward Kaufman.

The Lord group has worked with a wide spectrum of cultural organizations including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hong Kong Heritage Museum and the National World War II Museum.

The Corcoran's financial struggles predate the recent recession, which hit American arts institutions particularly hard. In 2005 the Corcoran canceled plans to have noted architect Frank Gehry build an addition to the historic building because it was unable to raise all of the $200 million cost. David Levy, the longtime director, resigned at that time. The museum decided to close two days a week and laid off employees.

In 2010 it took other measures to stabilize the budget, including selling the Randall School, a sprawling structure in Southwest Washington, which the Corcoran hoped would provide adjunct teaching and exhibition space. Last month the Corcoran announced it was leasing an adjacent parking lot for an office building.

"At the beginning of the year we had $14 million in bank debt; now we have a little over $4 million," Bollerer said.

The current budget is $24.5 million, which includes an operating deficit of $2.9 million. It's that deficit that leads Bollerer to characterize the museum finances as "unsustainable."

If an organization is raising money but only able to reduce the deficit, it is in trouble. "Almost any nonprofit organization that operates with a deficit has to use its fundraising money to cover every year is at risk," he said. Right now the Corcoran has an endowment of $30 million.

In 2009, the museum had 122,473 visitors and in 2010 counted 104,551 visitors. (Last year, it was closed four days because of snowstorms and one show ended early because of problems with the climate control system.)

The growth of the college has been a bright side of the Corcoran story. In the past three years, enrollment grew by 30 percent. For fall 2011 there are four times as many applicants compared with last year, Bollerer said.

The tuition provides a necessary income stream. "We need to make this a center of art education. The board has been on that page for a long time," he said.

The Corcoran has been diligently improving its appearance. The first floor received a paint job the color of poppies. The facade of the Beaux-Arts building was restored and its unique roof replaced. The permanent collection, much of it previously in storage, was reinstalled in public galleries.

"The first thing is making the Corcoran a much more exciting place for people to come," Bollerer said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company