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Crisis at the Corcoran
With the museum hemorrhaging money, the building in need of massive repairs, and staff and supporters up in arms over a possible move, the institution’s future has never looked more uncertain.
On a weekday morning in mid-July, an uneasy group of curators, administrators, and support staff gathered in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s first-floor auditorium.
A staff meeting like this wouldn’t normally be a source of anxiety, but the Corcoran employees were still reeling from a stunning announcement a few weeks earlier: The board of trustees was considering selling the museum’s iconic 19th-century building, a block from the White House, and moving to another location.
Rumors that a move might be in the works had been circulating since late 2011. Then on June 4, the news broke. The trustees had authorized a search for a possible new home.
Washington’s arts community was outraged: This is the oldest art museum in the city, for God’s sake. Its collection of 19th-century American paintings is among the world’s finest. “You might as well move the White House to Arizona,” says former Corcoran director Roy Slade. No one could understand it. How could abandoning this magnificent structure—the Corcoran’s very soul—benefit the institution?
Trustees and top executives insisted they had no choice but to consider moving as part of an effort to chart a sustainable path forward. While the Corcoran’s College of Art & Design is on reasonably solid financial footing, the museum’s dismal condition threatens the institution as a whole. Attendance has fallen precipitously, and last year the Corcoran brought in less than half the donations garnered by the Phillips Collection, a smaller private museum that faces many of the same challenges as the Corcoran in competing for visitors and donors in a city rich with museums.
The Corcoran posted a $7.1-million shortfall on a budget of $27 million in 2011—meaning that about a quarter of its budget was deficit spending. It expects to post another deficit of at least $7 million for 2012. Management has borrowed from the endowment to cover operating expenses. And maintaining the 115-year-old building—which by one estimate needs $130 million in repairs—drains precious cash. (The Washingtonian’s late publisher Philip Merrill was briefly a Corcoran trustee, from 1999 to 2002.)
At the start of the July staff meeting, the Corcoran’s chief operating officer, Lauren Garcia, stepped onto the stage. Though Garcia had been in her job for only a year, museum employees say they had come to see in her much of what they distrusted in the Corcoran’s leaders.
Garcia had arrived at the Corcoran with a professional background in homeland-security contracting—not in the arts or museum world—and staff members snickered that she had been hired because she was the board chairman’s neighbor. Employees came to believe she was a driving force behind the decision to consider moving.
Garcia called the staff’s attention to a video playing on a screen above the stage, according to two people in attendance. The footage showed water bursting out of pipes, gurgling up from a drinking fountain, and washing over cement floors. The video was titled “Flood Resulting From Thunderstorm.” The damage had occurred on July 10.
The video was a compilation of clips edited together. At one point, ten different flood shots appeared onscreen at once, artfully spliced into a single arrangement. Someone had spent time producing this.
Garcia said the purpose of the video was to show the extent of the damage and thank the employees who had contained the deluge: “I want to show you what a great job our operations staff did.”
But many in the auditorium didn’t buy it. “We all saw it as propaganda to get us out of the building,” says a Corcoran employee. “They are using every little thing that goes wrong with the building against the building and against us.”
Such distrust has become common, according to interviews with more than 75 people, including current employees, ex-trustees, and former executives. In many of those interviews, dissatisfaction with the institution’s current leadership was a recurring theme.
Staffers believe the Corcoran’s decision makers see the Corcoran no differently than any other failing business; for the first time, the museum is being led by three people—the board chair, the director, and the chief operating officer—who have no professional background in the arts or museums. Employees say they feel marginalized by the army of consultants called on for help. And leaders’ connections to Alexandria—the only location mentioned in early news reports as a possible destination for the institution—have raised alarms.
“We don’t trust them,” says a Corcoran employee. “If we could hold a vote of no confidence, we would.”
Speculation about a move to Alexandria has been the biggest source of controversy. Such an action now appears unlikely, for logistical and possibly legal reasons, but critics argue that the prospect has sidetracked Corcoran leaders at a critical time.
“The time, money, and resources that are now being devoted to the potential relocation of the museum outside of Washington—a relocation that would violate the museum’s founding document—is the quintessential definition of corporate waste and mismanagement,” wrote Andrew Tulumello, a lawyer working with Save the Corcoran—a coalition of students, alumni, faculty, and donors working to prevent the sale of the building—in an October 9 letter to Corcoran leaders.
Now, with the institution’s very existence hanging by a thread, leaders must not only restore its finances but also regain the trust of donors, staff, students, and other supporters.
• • •
This isn’t the first time the Corcoran has faced possible collapse. The institution has a long history of financial troubles.
The roots of the current crisis stretch back to a warm evening in June 1989, when an angry crowd assembled outside the museum’s 17th Street building. “Shame, shame, shame,” the protesters chanted, according to the New York Times.
Their fury had been sparked three weeks earlier, when Corcoran director Christina Orr-Cahall canceled a retrospective of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. The exhibit—financed in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency—contained some of the homoerotic and sadomasochistic photographs that made Mapplethorpe controversial. With the NEA’s budget up for congressional review—and its grant-making decisions already taking heat from conservative lawmakers—Orr-Cahall worried that the exhibit could drag the Corcoran into a political mud pit. So she scrapped the show.
Washington’s art community was appalled that the Corcoran would buckle so readily. “This was just inexcusable,” says Andrea Pollan, who runs an art gallery and is an independent curator. She and her friends told everyone they knew to gather outside the museum on June 29. The turnout of 700 protesters was considerably higher than they’d hoped for, and with the culture wars already in the news, the demonstration drew international attention.
Although it had taken more than a century to build, the Corcoran’s reputation was unraveling with alarming speed.
The museum had been established by William Wilson Corcoran—a cofounder of Corcoran and Riggs bank, the predecessor of Riggs Bank—who collected works by painters of the so-called Hudson River School, whose sweeping landscapes projected a romantic image of American life.
Corcoran commissioned an architect to build a gallery, but construction stopped at the start of the Civil War. Corcoran was a Southern sympathizer, and after the battle of Bull Run he was briefly arrested before fleeing to Europe. Union leaders confiscated his unfinished art gallery and converted it into a depository for army provisions.
Upon Corcoran’s return to Washington after the war, the Secretary of State attempted to charge him with tax evasion. But in his art collection, Corcoran found an opportunity to reestablish himself. In 1869, he turned his private gallery into Washington’s first art museum, dedicated to “encouraging American genius.”
President Ulysses S. Grant attended the building’s opening, and by 1878, 100,000 visitors were arriving each year—more than twice the turnout at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, according to an article in the journal of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. “At the head of all the buildings dedicated to art on this continent stands the Corcoran Gallery,” the New York Evening Post gushed.
In 1897, the Corcoran’s growing collection and recently established art school moved into its current 17th Street home—designed by Ernest Flagg—which Frank Lloyd Wright called the “best-designed building in Washington.” The Corcoran served as America’s unofficial national art museum through the early 20th century.
That changed in 1937, when Andrew Mellon donated his massive collection to establish the National Gallery of Art. Washington’s cultural landscape got more crowded in the 1960s and ’70s as the Smithsonian Institution opened the National Museum of African Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Renwick Gallery. These federally supported institutions enjoyed a taxpayer subsidy that the Corcoran could never obtain.
But even without federal funds, by the 1970s the Corcoran had established itself as a Washington treasure. The museum became an important crossroads for artists in the area. Locals turned up for painting classes. The Corcoran’s annual ball was a key date on the city’s social calendar. And its biennial exhibits garnered national attention. “It was kind of the little institution that could,” says Kathryn Keane, a former deputy to the director.
Then the Mapplethorpe controversy hit.
Orr-Cahall resigned as director in December 1989. But the Corcoran had already become a symbol of gutlessness in the face of intolerance. “It is going to be a long road back,” Jane Livingston, the curator who organized the Mapplethorpe exhibit, told the New York Times after resigning.
When David Levy walked into the Corcoran as its new director in 1991, he found an institution in freefall. Artists had boycotted the museum. The gallery was whisper quiet, the staff demoralized. Levy identified the Corcoran’s gaping deficits and poor reputation as its most urgent problems. “The place was bleeding,” he says. “I really felt like if we couldn’t turn this around now, the Corcoran was going under.”
A native New Yorker, Levy had held leadership posts at New School University and Parsons School of Design. Arriving in Washington, he dug through old fundraising reports and assembled lists of donors who had deserted the Corcoran after Mapplethorpe.
During evenings at his Embassy Row house, Levy assured former donors that the people behind the Mapplethorpe mess were gone. He promised to reengage Washington’s community of artists, host exhibitions of national significance, and expand enrollment in the college.
Levy opened a cafe in the museum’s atrium and hired a top publicist to generate buzz. There were jazz brunches, cocktail parties, and family days. “The energy level was just off the charts,” says Washington artist William Dunlap.
After five years, museum attendance and college enrollment had increased. Annual fundraising more than doubled, to $5 million. The Washington Post Style section named the Corcoran the “biggest improvement” of 1995. A New York Times headline trumpeted a “Renaissance After a Dark Age.”
Yet the Corcoran struggled to break even, partly because of the cost of maintaining its building, according to Margaret Wieners, the Corcoran’s former vice president of finance and administration. Heating and cooling systems were held together with duct tape. “Everybody understood that there was just no way to continue going on the way we were going,” says Wieners. “It was unsustainable.”
Levy recognized that the Corcoran’s position remained weak. Its chief attraction was a collection of 19th-century American paintings—a subject that excites art historians much more than it does tourists. And for each visitor, the Corcoran had to compete not only with the National Gallery and the Hirshhorn but with the Lincoln Memorial and the National Air and Space Museum—taxpayer-funded attractions that, unlike the Corcoran, didn’t charge admission.
Levy came to believe that the millions of visitors who descend on the nation’s capital aren’t really “tourists.” Instead, they’re “pilgrims” who arrive to visit a specific checklist of sights. The White House. The Hope Diamond. Mount Vernon. For the Corcoran to survive into the 21st century, Levy concluded, it had to get on that list.
Constructing a new wing on the site of the Corcoran’s parking lot presented an intriguing answer. The college needed more space, and a provocative, avant-garde structure would demand attention in a city of more restrained traditions. In June 1999, the Corcoran hired star architect Frank Gehry.
Two years earlier, the Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao, Spain. It was hailed as one of the most important buildings of the past quarter century. In its first year, the $89-million museum brought more than 1.3 million tourists to the obscure seaport, rejuvenating its sleepy economy.
If Gehry could do that for little Bilbao, imagine what he could do for the Corcoran, Levy thought: “A Frank Gehry building would get you on that list.”
Gehry’s concept for the Corcoran was striking—an undulating flow of titanium sheets bending into corners and curves. The projected price: $60 million.
Trustees initially supported the plan, providing the campaign’s first $15 million. But by 2001, cost estimates swelled to $120 million. Margaret Wieners, the finance director, considered the target too ambitious. “It’s a leap of faith,” she told Levy before resigning.
When two executives from America Online promised $30 million to the campaign in 2001, Levy had nearly half the pledges he needed. A model of the Gehry wing appeared in the Corcoran’s atrium, where a video about the project played on a loop.
Then, one by one, things went wrong. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, put the Corcoran inside a maze of security hassles, which hurt attendance. After the Internet bubble burst, the ensuing recession made additional contributions elusive. In 2004, Corcoran chairman Otto Ruesch, a leading advocate of the wing, died of cancer.
Northern Virginia real-estate developer John T. “Til” Hazel stepped in as chairman but failed to attract donations. Meanwhile, new projections showed that the cost of the expansion had ballooned. Levy says contractor estimates were $160 million, but Hazel said the cost would be $200 million, and that number was widely reported.
Levy was adamant that the Gehry project should go forward, but Hazel canceled it in May 2005. Levy resigned.
The campaign had raised $28 million in hard cash and paid Gehry $17 million for his designs. Not a single stone was ever moved.
• • •
In early 2006, two dozen staffers gathered in the Corcoran’s atrium for a reception to welcome a new director, Paul Greenhalgh. After a year of anxiety following Levy’s departure, employees enjoyed a glass of Champagne and a moment of optimism as Greenhalgh outlined his vision.
Greenhalgh, 50, had most recently been president of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design. Staffers joked that the trustees had to leave the country to find someone willing to take the position, but Greenhalgh was convinced he could turn things around.
Producing world-class art exhibits, he insisted, was the only way to rebuild the Corcoran’s reputation and attract new donors. Under Greenhalgh’s direction, the Corcoran would present a dynamic schedule of installations. “People will be lining up around the block to see the shows,” he said.
When Greenhalgh finished speaking, employees approached the new boss to introduce themselves. “I just want to let you know that our infrastructure is shot,” a former employee recalls telling him. “We’re looking at a large amount of money that’s going to have to go into it.”
“Don’t worry,” Greenhalgh said. “You will find that in short order the gallery will be bringing in plenty of money and all of your problems will be gone.”
Following the Gehry campaign’s implosion, the Corcoran again found itself in turmoil. Some donors were offended that they hadn’t been contacted personally when the campaign folded. Others fumed upon learning that some contributions had been spent and wouldn’t be refunded. “The goodwill of donors was completely decimated,” says a former employee.
The trustees had hired Greenhalgh to restore order. But he had little interest in agonizing over the budget. “If you worry about money first, you do cheap ideas,” he told the Washington Post.
Greenhalgh’s vision was realized in 2007 when the much-anticipated “Modernism: Designing a New World” show opened. But because the massive 390-piece installation—which included the work of Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, and Piet Mondrian—had to be hauled over from Germany, it became one of the most expensive exhibits in Corcoran history. And despite its critical success, the show didn’t draw the attendance Greenhalgh had expected.
At the same time, Corcoran outreach failed to reenlist former donors. “After my experience with the Corcoran, please never contact me again,” the fundraising staff was told again and again.
In 2008, the Corcoran posted a $2.6-million deficit. Someone had to do something.
• • •
Harry Hopper, a successful venture capitalist and art collector, joined the Corcoran’s board in 2005. Upon rising to vice chairman in 2007, Hopper began scrutinizing the Corcoran’s books. “It was clear that in order to right the ship,” Hopper says, “we really had to start at the foundational level, and we had to do it pretty quickly.”
The Corcoran hired the McLean consulting firm Real Change Strategies. Fred Bollerer, an avuncular former Riggs Bank CEO, was a partner in the firm. Bollerer spotted problems everywhere. He overhauled the Corcoran’s approach to human resources, operations, marketing and communications, information technology, finance, and accounting.
Some staffers resented the consultants. When one consultant identified herself as “not an art person,” a Corcoran employee asked: “Well, then what are you doing here? We don’t make widgets here.”
Hopper and Bollerer established a strong working relationship, former executives say. They shared an affinity for PowerPoint presentations and business-school jargon.
In 2008, Greenhalgh was diagnosed with cancer and began taking time away for treatment. Gradually, Bollerer’s authority eclipsed Greenhalgh’s.
When Corcoran chairman Michael Harreld stepped down in March 2009, the board chose Hopper to fill the vacancy. Hopper brought Bollerer on as the Corcoran’s chief operating officer.
By then the global financial crisis had hammered the Corcoran’s already fragile finances. As of the spring of 2009, the Corcoran’s endowment had shrunk by nearly a third. Revenue declined; donations slipped. “We were on the brink,” recalls a former executive.
Amid the panic, a Corcoran executive asked the trustees to reach out to their contacts for donations. The request offended some trustees, who had contributed generously for years. Many had already tapped out their contacts during the Gehry campaign—and its collapse had hurt their credibility. A senior executive says Hopper told him that the trustees didn’t feel comfortable staking their reputations on the Corcoran again.
How else could the museum generate revenue in the middle of a recession if its trustees weren’t able to jump-start fundraising? “Conversations always went back to real estate,” says a former executive.
In February 2010, the Corcoran sold its Randall School property in Southwest DC for $6.5 million. The Corcoran had purchased the abandoned school in 2006, but plans to make it a campus for the College of Art & Design fell through when its development partner lost its financing. In selling the property, the Corcoran had to write off $3.4 million it had spent on utilities, security, maintenance, and other expenses, according to Bollerer.
In July 2011, the Corcoran agreed to sell its adjacent parking lot—where the Gehry wing was once envisioned—to a developer. The deal provides the Corcoran with $20.5 million, which leaders have said would allow the institution to regroup and find a way forward.
Greenhalgh resigned in the middle of 2010. While the trustees looked for a permanent replacement, Bollerer took over as director.
With an ex-banker in the director’s office, the museum has lacked a compelling artistic vision, Corcoran employees say. “You don’t go to a hospital to get operated on by a janitor,” says former director Roy Slade. Museum attendance plummeted to 69,000 visitors in 2012 from 324,000 a decade earlier, according to tax records.
The absence of artistic credibility also sandbagged fundraising, staffers say. “Bollerer is not a museum person,” says a Corcoran employee. “How can he go out and sell the museum [to donors]?” In 2011, contributions to the Corcoran fell to $2.9 million, down by 22 percent from 2009.
Despite declining revenue, annual expenses have increased by 21 percent, or $5.3 million, since 2009. Bollerer says the Corcoran had to upgrade infrastructure and hire new faculty in an effort to increase enrollment in the college. It has also raised salaries to “retain key talent and attract appropriate personnel.”
Bollerer has announced that he’ll retire next year, and the Corcoran has launched a search for a new director. But to the staff, Bollerer’s two-year tenure represents a failure of leadership. “Corcoran’s problems arise from the fact that they keep putting people in charge who don’t know the first thing about running an art museum,” says an employee.
“A turnaround was possible when they put Bollerer at the helm two years ago,” says Jayme McLellan, an adjunct Corcoran faculty member and a member of the Save the Corcoran coalition, “but is less likely as time goes on.”
The recent outcry over a possible move to Alexandria certainly hasn’t helped.
The events that led to the controversy began about two years ago when the Corcoran hired consultants to assist in an exhaustive review of its options. Their aim was finally to address the financial problems that had plagued the Corcoran for so long. No idea was off the table.
A study found that the 17th Street building needed $130 million in repairs, but even after those it wouldn’t have enough space for the art school’s students.
Trustees started exploring the possibility of moving, though Hopper says they always preferred to find a way to stay on 17th Street. In July 2011, Corcoran officials contacted DC’s deputy mayor of economic development, Victor Hoskins, to begin researching options. Over the next six months, Corcoran representatives met seven times with District officials and real-estate developers. Several discussions concerned a property near the Fort Totten neighborhood.
But trustees also considered a move outside the city. In September 2011, a Corcoran delegation toured the Old Town waterfront, just blocks from where Hopper and Garcia live. Then Alexandria officials visited the Corcoran in November, and on January 6 Bollerer met with Alexandria’s mayor. Word of the September waterfront tour made its way back to the Corcoran.
Looking around at the museum’s leaders, some staff members noticed a common denominator. Board chairman Harry Hopper lived in Alexandria, as did chief operating officer Lauren Garcia, the board treasurer, and another board member. This summer, an Alexandria school-board member became the Corcoran’s communications director.
Immediately before joining the Corcoran, Garcia had been board vice chair of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, a city-funded organization designed to bring new businesses to Alexandria. Its president, Val Hawkins, is a friend and neighbor of Garcia’s and Hopper’s. Both Garcia and Hopper appeared at an Alexandria City Council hearing to speak in support of a plan to redevelop the city’s waterfront.
“It’s like they are building a gang from Alexandria,” says Lauren Gentile, a Corcoran supporter.
Employees became convinced that the Corcoran’s leaders were using the building’s maintenance problems as a smoke screen to move the institution to Alexandria—especially after the announcement, in early June of this year, that the trustees had authorized a search for a possible new home.
“Everything started to coalesce into ‘Oh, wow, they’re really serious about this,’ ” says McLellan.
Corcoran officials attempted to squelch the Alexandria gossip. The Corcoran “will consider all options in DC, Maryland, and Virginia,” they said in a presentation to the public on June 14. “There is no basis to the rumor that we are moving to Alexandria.”
On October 10, employees arrived at the Corcoran to find new artwork in the museum: Students had hung posters pillorying the institution’s leaders. One featured photographs of Hopper, Bollerer, and Garcia alongside a shot of a welcome to virginia highway sign. “Has the Corcoran been up front with you about how they’ve been spending your tuition?” the poster read.
The prank was inspired by a Save the Corcoran letter, leaked to the Washington Post, that documented a previously unreported meeting at the Alexandria waterfront. To some Corcoran employees, the letter was proof that the Alexandria conspiracy theory was true after all.
Alexandria was, in fact, the only suburban jurisdiction whose officials met with Corcoran leaders before the institution’s search for a potential new home became public in June, according to a timeline provided by the Corcoran.
Hopper says these meetings were just preliminary research to see if a move was even possible. No specific deals were discussed. He maintains that the Corcoran’s actions were in no way influenced by ties to Alexandria, adding that the Corcoran reached out to Alexandria only at the suggestion of a consultant.
Nevertheless, Alexandria leaders launched an aggressive effort to take the Corcoran across the Potomac beginning nearly a year before the potential move became public. By January, the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership had commissioned a study to explore the socioeconomic effects of the Corcoran’s move there. Around the same time, the partnership’s president, Val Hawkins, contacted real-estate consultant Jeffrey Zell to get his opinion on the viability of a move from the 17th Street building.
Hours after the Washington City Paper broke the news of the Corcoran’s possible move, Alexandria deputy city manager Mark Jinks e-mailed top Alexandria officials with information that hadn’t been reported—that the Corcoran was considering at least four sites: Alexandria’s Robinson Terminal North, the DC waterfront near Maine Avenue, a vacant site in Rosslyn, and National Harbor in Prince George’s County. (This and other e-mails were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.)
Although Jinks said his understanding was “based on information prior to any board meeting,” he insisted Alexandria never had the inside track. “The fact that Alexandria is the only site mentioned in the news articles to date should not be read as the City being preferred in this competition,” Jinks wrote in bold font in a June 4 e-mail to the city council.
(Hopper says inside information didn’t come from Corcoran executives.)
After the news broke, representatives from the Corcoran met with jurisdictions throughout the region. Hopper says the board will base its decision only on information gathered during the formal exploration process, which began June 4 and is expected to last many months.
At this point, the Corcoran hasn’t even decided whether it will sell its building. A move to Alexandria would be difficult—maybe impossible. Even Alexandria Economic Development Partnership president Val Hawkins concedes that his city’s dream of landing the Corcoran is a “long shot.”
After examining the Corcoran’s 17th Street building, real-estate consultant Jeffrey Zell concluded that because it needs such extensive repairs and has historic zoning—most likely limiting the pool of buyers to other museums and nonprofits—the Corcoran won’t clear enough from its sale to build the type of structure it wants someplace else. Says Zell: “We’ve declared this a chasing-your-own-tail concept.”
Alexandria’s waterfront sites don’t have the zoning they’d need for an institution such as the Corcoran, Alexandria’s director of planning and zoning, Faroll Hamer, said in a June 4 e-mail.
And a Corcoran move to the suburbs might not even be legal. Andrew Tulumello, the attorney representing Save the Corcoran, argues that the museum’s governing deed—which expresses a goal of establishing an institution “in Washington City”—requires it to remain in the District. In July, DC attorney general Irvin Nathan began examining the possible move, which he could seek a court order to block under certain circumstances.
Meanwhile, as the Corcoran’s financial situation has continued to deteriorate, it has paid millions to outside consultants. Says Tulumello: “At least a meaningful percentage of that money has been directed to exploring locations outside the city.”
• • •
Two days after students’ protest posters appeared, the Corcoran announced it was discussing partnership opportunities with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University. Although the talks are preliminary, they could allow the Corcoran to remain in the 17th Street building—an outcome Hopper insists he wanted all along. Other options under consideration include relocating the college or forming a partnership with a university or museum in another part of the country. Perhaps most attractive of all, a white-knight donor—or group of donors—could swoop in and save the Corcoran.
But even if a solution materializes, the institution will still need to earn back its most valuable asset: the trust and support of its staff, donors, students, and other advocates.
It has a long way to go.
This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.