The startling invitation began landing in e-mail inboxes and on the social-media pages of arts patrons and advocates late Thursday: Come to a reception on the top floor of the Hay-Adams. “Every voice matters,” the missive coaxed. “Open bar,” it cajoled.
The main attraction would be Wayne Reynolds, the bold — some might say over-the-top — former chairman of Ford’s Theatre. After helping to raise gobs more cash for Ford’s ($54 million total) than theater types thought possible, Reynolds now aims to explain to the guests how he proposes to do something similar for the struggling Corcoran Gallery of Art.
All very nice, except for one thing: The Corcoran isn’t interested. Gallery executives have had it up to here with Reynolds’s attempted end run around the genteel norms of cultural Washington — a world where the less said, the better. They say Reynolds’s proposed radical reshaping would destroy Washington’s oldest private art museum, located just blocks from the White House, along with the related Corcoran College of Art and Design.
Yet the rebuffed Reynolds persists in his relentlessly public campaign to gain a seat on the Corcoran’s board of trustees. He says he can help. He wants to be named chairman.
The current chairman, venture capitalist and art collector Harry F. Hopper III, is not talking publicly about Reynolds. But some of Hopper’s peers in the national art world brim with amazed reaction to a spectacle they have never seen before.
“It’s an unusual situation, absolutely, in that it seems to be more like a corporate boardroom maneuver, where someone is trying to come in and take over,” said Harry Philbrick, museum director at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which, like the Corcoran, pairs a museum with an art school. “Certainly there are [attempted] changes of leadership in the art world, but they happen in a low-key, behind-the-scenes sort of way.”
“If it’s ever happened before, I’m not aware of it,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums. “Anything he does could be disruptive to what the board and the current leadership of the museum have been working toward for quite a while.”
Reynolds, 56, is unapologetic.
“Do I have a choice?” Reynolds said. “Harry Hopper has told the board not to talk to me, not to meet with me. It’s not really a reflection of me. It’s a reflection of the way they operate their board. . . . We’re staging a revolution. ”
By Friday afternoon, 50 people had RSVP’d to the activist group Save the Corcoran, which is organizing the reception set for next Friday at 5 p.m. Reynolds will pick up the $10,000 tab. Worried the crowd will grow too large for the 300-capacity banquet room, he emphasized that the reception is intended for the Corcoran community — students, faculty and staff.
“The Corcoran is outraged at Mr. Reynolds’s reckless publicity campaign waged against the very institution he seeks to appoint himself to lead,” Mimi Carter, Corcoran vice president of marketing and communications, said in an e-mailed statement. “The Corcoran’s Board of Trustees and staff remain focused on finishing the diligent work that is currently underway — without outside distractions — to lead the institution to a sustainable model for its future.”
Reynolds says he will explain at the reception his vision for what he calls a national Corcoran Center for Creativity. He would expand the college and focus the museum on digital art, photography and contemporary art. Most controversially, he proposes creating an endowment of “a few hundred million dollars” in large part by deaccessioning — selling — a fraction of the collection that is rarely displayed.
Selling art to raise funds for any purpose besides acquiring new art flouts cherished professional museum standards. Corcoran curators also say raising such a large sum would require selling iconic pieces in the collection, such as “Niagara,” the epic 1857 waterfall landscape by Frederic Edwin Church.
“I think it’s stupid,” said Philip Brookman, the Corcoran’s chief curator. “You would gut the collection. . . .The Corcoran would become ostracized from the community of museums.”
Reynolds says that a respected scholar, familiar with the collection, has pledged to consult on deaccessioning and has given assurances that such a sum could be raised without sacrificing great paintings. That scholar, reached by The Washington Post, declined to be identified because of other professional commitments.
Corcoran executives also object to Reynolds’s intention to deemphasize the museum in favor of the college. They say they seek a solution that will enhance both.
But a generation of Corcoran boards and executives has failed to crack the code of how to thrive in a town dominated by free, federally funded rivals. The annual deficit hit $7 million in 2011.
The shortfall would have been about $7 million again for the fiscal year that ended in June but for an infusion of $18.8 million from the sale of the adjacent parking lot for an office building. Instead of a deficit of $7 million, there was a surplus of $10.8 million. But at the current spending pace, the parking-lot money would be gone in less than two years.
Hopper and the board have resolved to fix the problem. But after more than two years of study, and consideration of selling the Beaux-Arts building that is its home, a solution remains elusive. A self-imposed deadline of mid-March to announce a way forward has passed. The next trustees meeting is April 3.
Reynolds’s self-positioning as fixer from the outside has perils and possibilities, museum authorities say.
“That kind of white knight coming in is a tricky situation,” Philbrick said. “To me, it gets away from the thing that I think has to happen [at the Corcoran], which is a core group of trustees has to step in and do the friend-raising that leads to fundraising in the long term.”
And yet, said Gary Vikan, executive director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, “it’s much better that this happen in full view of the public” so people are informed of potentially momentous changes afoot.
Reynolds, the son of famed sports and lifestyle photographer Hy Peskin (who changed his name to Brian Reynolds) pays himself $695,000 as president of the American Academy of Achievement, according to tax filings. The education foundation invites professional superstars — who have included former presidents, leading artists, Nobel laureates (and Post luminaries including Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee and the late Katharine Graham) — to meet high-achieving young people from around the world.
He is married to Catherine Reynolds, who has given about $100 million in the past decade to arts and educational causes — including her husband’s academy — through the foundation she controls. The foundation is built on the proceeds of a student loan operation that she built and sold in 2000. She notoriously withdrew a $38 million gift to the Smithsonian in 2002 when her notion of building a hall of achievement of inspiring figures met with resistance.
At Ford’s, Wayne Reynolds led a campaign that far surpassed the initial plan to raise about $20 million when he became chairman in 2006. Director Paul R. Tetreault said recently that Reynolds’s brand of bold thinking was such that the director would jokingly sift his chairman’s lists of ideas: “That idea’s visionary, that one’s crazy, that’s visionary, that’s crazy.”
The seemingly endless uncertainty at the Corcoran is taking a toll, according to students and employees.
“When I go to school, I have to feel safe — I have to feel like I’m in an environment where I can create,” said Lorenzo Cardim, a junior. “We are in this environment of fear. We can’t express ourselves the same way we would.”
“I don’t know one person who hasn’t looked into transferring schools, because no one knows if their school is going to be here in the future,” said Patrick Masterson, 23, a sophomore.
The emergence of Reynolds has gotten everybody’s attention.
“I think he should be listened to,” said Bill Newman, a professor of painting and one of the longest-serving staff members, starting in 1971.
“It’s the first time our community has had something that’s positive that we can look forward to, that may help us out in the long run,” Masterson said.
“That place is held together by tons of love and bubble gum,” said Reuben Breslar, who graduated in 2006 and has worked at the Corcoran as an art installer and art outreach instructor. “With all the heart and dedication that is already there, if we just get a little bit of money and power players in the right positions, the sky’s the limit.”