Wayne Reynolds, the brash former chairman of Ford’s Theatre, where he led a $54 million capital expansion campaign, said he could similarly revitalize the financially struggling Corcoran Gallery of Art — if only the Corcoran would make him chairman.
Corcoran executives are cool to his overtures, in an unusually public spat that violates the genteel norms of cultural Washington, where deals are cut and leaders are deposed in private, and the result is unveiled with public relations pep and precision.
“I feel like they’re forcing my hand” to go public “before they do something stupid” without him, Reynolds said in an interview. “I think it’s the greatest philanthropic opportunity in town for the next 20 years. It’s shameful what’s happened there.”
In broad strokes, Reynolds proposes what he calls the Corcoran Center for Creativity. He would expand the Corcoran College of Art and Design, adding a stronger focus on technology and new media, along with the traditional arts disciplines. He would de-emphasize the gallery, arguing that it can’t compete with the free, federally funded galleries in town.
Most controversially, he proposes selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art that rarely, if ever, gets displayed and is not central to founder William Corcoran’s original charge in 1869 for the institution to encourage “American genius.” The money would establish a huge endowment for the first time in the Corcoran’s history. But such a move would flout a strong taboo in the museum world against selling art for any purpose other than acquiring more art. The Corcoran would risk a reprimand from a leading trade organization, the Association of Art Museum Directors.
“I say, let’s be the greatest in the world at something,” Reynolds said. “We can’t be the greatest art museum and the greatest school; we don’t have the assets anymore. . . . If we could create a center that was the nexus of technology innovation, the arts and creativity, and create a paradigm that’s never been done before, it would be a home run not only for the community but also the nation.”
The Corcoran, which last year controversially considered selling its historic building near the White House to help balance its budget, is nearing the conclusion of an almost year-long process to reinvent itself and forge a sustainable future. It has explored collaborations with a number of potential institutional and philanthropic partners, and has said it would announce a plan in coming weeks.
Reynolds, too, was invited to present his vision to a committee of Corcoran trustees in January, but said he has heard almost nothing since.
“The Corcoran finds it unfortunate that Mr. Reynolds is attempting to circumvent what we consider the normal governance process,” said Mimi Carter, the Corcoran’s vice president for marketing and communications. “He’s doing this by attempting to nominate himself to the board through this public lobbying effort, in a manner that no nonprofit anywhere is going to allow to happen.”
Harry Hopper, a venture capitalist and art collector, has been the board’s chairman since 2009. He referred a reporter to Carter for comment.
“We are not currently in conversations with Mr. Reynolds, and no further conversations are scheduled at this time,” Carter added.
As chairman of Ford’s for six years, until his term ended in June, Reynolds helped lead the effort to upgrade the theater and create the $25 million Center for Education and Leadership across the street from it.
“Wayne brought a vision that was unparalleled in the history of Ford’s,” said Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s. “He saw an institution that had never really raised more than annual operating money. We put forward a plan at the beginning of his chairmanship that I think at the time was to raise $20 million — which was unprecedented in our history. He said, ‘We can do that, but that’s not enough.’ And we ended up raising over $54 million.
“The brilliance of Wayne is that he’s a dreamer and a visionary and he inspires other people to get behind it.”
However, Reynolds has never led a strictly arts institution, or a college. Yet he and his wife, Catherine Reynolds, have given tens of millions of dollars to a range of arts, cultural and educational institutions in the past decade, using money from a foundation controlled by Catherine Reynolds.
Reynolds also is chairman and chief executive of the Academy of Achievement, a nonprofit foundation that invites exceptional college and graduate students from across the country to regular gatherings to meet political leaders, Nobel laureates, artists and other high-achievers. Hundreds of participants over the years have included five former presidents plus Barack Obama before he was president; Bob Dylan, Robert Rauschenberg, Steve Jobs, Toni Morrison and Martin Scorsese (as well as Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee).
Reynolds’s vision for the Corcoran has won some support in social and political circles and among the advocates banded together in Save the Corcoran. That group, through its attorney, sent a letter to the Corcoran in January endorsing Reynolds to become chairman.
“I think [Reynolds] should become the chairman, and he would be a great chairman, based entirely on his performance at Ford’s Theatre, based on his vision and the contacts that he has,” said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who in the past has spurred efforts to secure city funding for capital projects at the Corcoran. “Everything Wayne set out to do, he did, and more.”
Evans also was quick to praise Hopper and the Corcoran board for “saving the Corcoran and keeping it open in very difficult financial times.” But now, he added, “I hope the board would work with Wayne . . . to make the Corcoran the great museum it was intended to be.”
The Corcoran’s methodical — critics say plodding — process to reimagine its identity has involved spending $1.5 million on consultants; meeting with experts and stakeholders; and looking for potential new homes in the suburbs or elsewhere in the city. In December, the gallery resolved to stay put.
The Corcoran has also explored possible collaborations with George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art.
Reynolds said Corcoran leaders told him they were also in discussions with billionaire art collector Mitchell Rales and with the University of Maryland. A representative of Rales’s did not respond to requests for comment. A Maryland spokesman said he had no information on the subject.
Reynolds said he could kick-start fundraising, as he did at Ford’s.
“I could bring in 30, 40 or 50 new board members who would donate at least $50,000 or $100,000 apiece,” he said. “When I have dinners now, because the word is out around town that I would like to do this, people come up to me and say, ‘If you’re in, I’m in.’ ”
However, the potential implications of his plans make even some allies uncomfortable. Jayme McLellan, an organizer of Save the Corcoran, said her group would not favor a drastic sell-off of art nor a full retreat from the museum side of the Corcoran’s identity. But she said Reynolds’s seeming willingness to heed community concerns inspires her confidence.
“He’s so transparent and open to community input that he’s not going to go off on a wild tangent and run off with the place,” she said.
Reynolds said only a fraction of the collection would be sold, and the process would be informed by a well-known scholar familiar with the Corcoran. Reached by The Post, the scholar declined to be identified because of other professional commitments.
Clearly, a Reynolds-led Corcoran would emphasize the college. “You have the students stuck away in the basement,” Reynolds said, referring to the college’s location in the landmark building on 17th Street NW. “Lift the school out of the basement. Make it the focal point. Since we’re supposed to be encouraging American genius, why are the geniuses stuck in the basement?”
“I have nothing against displaying art,” Reynolds said. “But you can’t compete on a level in this town with the National Gallery of Art that gets [more than] $110 million a year from the federal government. You [the Corcoran] love your Degas. Well they have 10 Degas or whatever they have. Plus it’s free, plus it looks a hell of a lot better, plus they have more stuff and a better bookshop and better food. And it’s on the Mall.”
Carter, of the Corcoran, said that the sale of works to create an endowment “is not something we’re considering right now.”
As for focusing efforts on the college, “the Corcoran board is looking for a comprehensive solution to both the gallery and the college,” Carter said. “The trustees are not looking for half a solution.”
Reynolds noted that the year 2020 will be the 150th anniversary of the museum's securing its federal charter in 1870.
“Let’s have a ‘Vision for 2020,’ ” he said. “I know where I want to be: in a totally renovated building, with the greatest arts center in the country, with alliances across the country, and the greatest faculty and students we can find.”