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.