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.

Posted in: Culture, Museums

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7 thoughts on “Let’s retrain our non-profit leadership… Leave a comment

  1. Not sure whether the people in charge require retraining or just “un”-training; too many bad Power Point presentations in which the vision of art gets swept underneath the mission of financial commodification (as in its root word) of art. If Oscar Wilde were around, I’m sure he could turn this all into a very arch, sly, rip-roaring production…

  2. Phillip, you have identified the heart of the problem. The art museum world has begun to think our salvation lies in utilizing business models and practices for everything. I have been told by a respected colleague formerly at the Corcoran that I am just out of touch with reality –nothing matters except the bottom line. How tragic. It seems as I have written before, this director and this Board seem to think the only way to save the Corcoran is to sell it. The belief that it is okay to monetize the collection appears to be at the root of the thinking of this board. You can almost hear them rationalizing it

    Yes!! – we can consider selling the building. That’s okay. It will save the College. But what if we don’t receive enough money to do everything we need to build and operate the College on a new campus? Hey! Don’t worry, why not sell just a few of those great paintings we have in storage?

    This is the way this nightmare seems likely to continue? There are too many examples of colleges and universities –think Brandeis, Fiske, Randolph — turning to their art collections when they needed cash. In the future will I wake up one morning to read that the the Corcoran College has taken the next step and begun to sell just a few selected works from the collection to build such things as the new library, “Niagara Falls on the Potomac” or the Mount Corcoran Student Center?

  3. On smaller scale, even the pre-Larry Small regime at the Smithsonian forfeited a treasure, the Barney Studio House on Sheridan Circle. The keepers of our real estate ignored the offer of the DC chapter of the AIA to buy the house, fix it up (with OSHA standards) and keep it as a living remainder of a pioneer example of some federal support of the arts. The chapter staff would have been housed there. The embassy now using this historic landmark, of course, had to remove its art and furnishings. Wilton S. Dillon, Senior Scholar Emeritus

    1. That embassy received only a few of the furnishings of Studio House. The Smithsonian auctioned most of them off. I went. I wept. I bought 4 chairs hoping to donate them to the DC Historical Society but have not because of that institution’s continued precarious existence.

      The sale of the Alice Pike Barney House is a tragedy much like the proposed sale of the Corcoran building. At the Corcoran one wonders what will become of those items designed into or embedded within the building which like the bronze lions on the entry stairs at 17th Street might be pried loose after a sale or conveyed like kitchen appliances in a home. What will happen with other art works like the stone mantel in the Mantle room, the woodwork and ceiling in the tapestry room, the stained glass window, the bronze plaque dedicated to E.F. Andrews (founding dean of the Corcoran School) or the plaster bas relief reproduction of the Parthenon frieze …….just to mention a few.

      The idea of selling the building,essentially to consider art works as financial assets is monstrous and wrong. As Jayme McLellen wrote in her letter supporting the petition to “vote no on the sale of the building,” — “the board of Trustees, Harry Hopper, are corporate bankers by trade, and have handled this institution as an entity in a dry business transaction. Oscar Wilde referred to people like this as *”men who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” How sad.

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