Tag Archives: Corcoran

The Corcoran’s next step

I was elated when it was announced the Corcoran wouldn’t be leaving its historic home on 17th Street NW. But still, what does it say about the institution that they even considered the idea? With the recent announcement that the Corcoran will seek some kind of partnership or alliance with the University of Maryland, there’s an understandable sense of skepticism about how that will play out. In this Sunday’s The Washington Post, I talk to several people who will be deeply involved in the project. And I come away with a tiny glimmer of hope, so long as the Corcoran opens up the process and allows full transparency as it goes forward.

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More on the Corcoran

I used a column in Sunday’s paper to examine how the Corcoran’s curatorial history, its identity as an institution, and an all-too-frequent failure to capitalize on success has led it to its current financial woes. But there’s nothing there that can’t be fixed by passionate, enlightened, dedicated leadership. The Mapplethorpe controversy of 1989 played a role:

When case studies are written about how to blow up a nonprofit institution, the Mapplethorpe controversy is key among them, a classic map that prefigured controversies such as the implosion earlier this year at the breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure (which suddenly appeared political after trying to deny funding to Planned Parenthood), the 2010 censorship of an exhibition of gay and lesbian portraiture at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and the current power struggle at the University of Virginia. In all four cases, institutional leadership seemed unaware of the basic human capital invested in the organization, unaware that the people who keep the institution alive view it in essentially familial terms, not bureaucratic or organizational ones.

But the current leadership’s willingness to throw the entire museum into limbo while they pursue the horrible idea of selling the building could well be the death knell for the institution:

Yet at a critical moment, when the Corcoran desperately needs people to rally behind it, the board of directors has indicated that it is seriously considering a move that would further alienate supporters of the museum. Board Chairman Harry Hopper, in an interview with Washington Post reporters, said he and the board “weren’t out pounding the pavement on behalf of the institution” until they have “a plan that makes sense.”

Not “pounding the pavement on behalf of the institution” at the moment? I was gobsmacked by that when I first heard our reporters recount their interview with Hopper.

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Let’s retrain our non-profit leadership…

            We need to examine the parallels between what happened at the University of Virginia this past month, and what is happening at the Corcoran today. Is there perhaps an epidemic of short-sighted thinking running through the elite circles that control our academic and cultural organizations? Have two decades of fetishizing corporate-style leadership of non-profit organizations finally borne inevitable fruit: An environment in which the basic humanist purpose of academic and cultural organizations has been lost or supplanted? Is it time for some idealistic large foundation to create a program that educates potential board members of cultural organizations about the balance between fiscal responsibility and the real purpose of their institution (which will never make money, never pay for itself, never be anything but a torrent of red ink on the balance sheets)? It is astonishing to me that the Board of Visitors at UVA didn’t include one person who identified as a poet or artist or academic. Was there anyone in the room who could speak up for keeping the German program intact? For teaching the classics as the essential ground on which our society is built?

            I’m on record as deeply opposed to the sale of the Corcoran’s building. I think a move would be disastrous for the organization, diminishing its stature and severing its relation to existing audiences and communities. The building is an essential part of the Corcoran’s collection, an inviolable property that may be in disrepair, yet is superbly suited to the Corcoran’s mission, which includes displaying art. I call it “cultural vandalism” in my review of the new Richard Diebenkorn exhibition—which looks so good in the Corcoran’s galleries I can’t imagine how the gallery’s leadership could ever contemplate leaving.

            Of course, it’s easy for someone who isn’t on the board, who doesn’t have fiduciary responsibility for the organization, to cry foul on the proposed move. Organizations that rely on fund-raising have been suffering acutely for the past few years, and the fund-raising challenge has never been greater. But the Corcoran, though mismanaged and ill-tended for decades now, isn’t a small, fly-by-night non-profit. It has a major collection, it sits opposite the White House and it has been serving Washington and art for far longer than the National Gallery of Art. It’s too easy to think, Oh the Corcoran again, maybe we should just shut it down. But there’s too much at stake to be defeatist.

            What it needs is new leadership and probably a new board, reconstructed with people passionately committed to keeping the Corcoran alive and vital in tough times. Donors will support a dynamic leader with an exciting vision for the museum. What’s on offer from the current leadership—institutional suicide—isn’t vision, it’s an unimaginative form of despair.

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