Corcoran Gallery of Art to remain in historic Washington home

The Corcoran Gallery of Art will remain in its historic home near the White House after all, museum leaders said Monday, ending six months of angst and uncertainty over one of the strangest Washington real estate deals that never happened.

The Corcoran’s board of trustees called off the controversial search for suitable new locations in the city and the suburbs and canceled the “for sale-maybe” message it has been sending to possible buyers since June 4. That was when the board announced the potential move as one option for solving the Corcoran’s financial crisis.

“What has happened between then and now is that the process of publicly exploring this idea has generated not only noise and indigestion, it has also generated an inflow of opportunities and information,” said Harry Hopper, the chairman of the board. “We’re comfortable that there are enough paths to stay in the building. . . . We just were not in that position, we didn’t have this data in front of us, when we started the process.”

The cost and logistics of relocating, as well as partnership ideas they hadn’t explored before, helped persuade the board members to discard a move. However, Hopper and gallery President Fred Bollerer would not discuss details, and mystery still surrounds exactly how the Corcoran will chart a viable course.

Hopper and Bollerer said the research convinced them that the museum could stay in the landmark Beaux-Arts building that has been its home since 1897, even though the handsome edifice needs about $130 million in renovations.

“What makes today much different than June is that a number of individuals, corporations, foundations, other organizations have understood the severity of the problem and have engaged in a way to allow us to continue to stay in this building and to assure the future,” Bollerer said. The repair bill, he added, “is still an issue we’re going to wrestle with.”

Members of the arts community and city leaders applauded word that Washington would not lose its oldest private art gallery to the suburbs.

“This is fantastic news, and we’re ready to roll up our sleeves and help in any way we can,” said Jayme McLellan, a gallery owner and founding member of Save the Corcoran, which sprung up in opposition to any move.

“This news has made my day,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). “The Corcoran brand is synonymous with the nation’s capital. We could no more picture the Corcoran moving out of the District than the National Gallery of Art moving.”

“It’s a good thing,” said David Levy, a former director of the Corcoran. “I think they have a real challenge in front of them, but there are answers.”

However, some Corcoran lovers asked what the point was of the last six months of anxiety.

“They could have decided this a year ago and spent the money, the time and the goodwill that exists for the Corcoran looking for real solutions,” said Roberta Faul-Zeitler, who was a public relations executive for the Corcoran in the 1980s. (Bollerer said the gallery spent no money, just staff time, in studying a move.)

The Corcoran, which includes the related Corcoran College of Art and Design, has fitfully fended off financial troubles for decades, but it has never found a permanent solution to periodic budget crises. It has posted deficits of $7 million-plus two years in a row.

The college has been a bright spot, with enrollment rising and tuition fees helping to balance the books. But the college desperately needs expansion space. Hopper, who became chairman in 2009, and the 13 other trustees saw possible salvation in a move to a more affordable, flexible space.

The heretical willingness to consider abandoning the Corcoran’s quarters — considered by many to be an architectural gem — set off passionate opposition among some members of the arts community, as well as some students and Corcoran staffers.

Aside from affirming the decision to stay put — and announcing a timetable for more announcements — Hopper and Bollerer said they were not prepared to reveal specifics about their plans for launching the Corcoran into a more sustainable future. They said the trustees are pursuing various options and will settle on one in the next three months.

A big question mark has been how much the historic gallery might be worth to a developer or another user. Hopper and Bollerer now have a better idea, after having contracted with a broker to field offers, but they wouldn’t share it.

They insisted, however, that the decision to remain was not primarily driven by the price the building would fetch but was based on opportunities that have come to light. Those include potential partnerships with other organizations, such as George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art.

“We have a very good idea of the value of the building,” Bollerer said. “That can be used . . . as we discuss the assets that we have that a merger partner would find interesting.”

While the statement released Monday by the Corcoran says specifically that the “museum” will stay in the building, Hopper and Bollerer declined to say whether the “college” might leave the building. Some classes already are given at a building in Georgetown.

“The strong guiding principle that the trustees have, and the management has, is the co-
location of the gallery and the museum,” Bollerer said. “We have reason to believe that is an attainable goal.”

“One could imagine how a collaboration or partnership with another institution would allow effectively staying in the building and being able to expand the resources available to the college,” Hopper said.

The decision to stay marks a striking evolution in the Corcoran’s public assessment of its plight. Since the beginning, Bollerer has said no one in Corcoran’s leadership wanted to leave the building. And yet, in the June news release announcing the decision to study a move, attributed to Bollerer and Hopper, they said: “We would be hard-pressed to effect this integration [of the museum and gallery] in the existing building, which was not built for multi-purpose use and requires at least $100 million in renovations.”

Now, it seems, they’ve found a way.