Harry Hopper III, chairman of the board of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, recently shocked Washington’s lovers of high culture by suggesting that his institution might sell its building near the White House and possibly decamp to Maryland or Virginia.
The city’s oldest museum, founded in 1869 by banker and Confederate sympathizer William Wilson Corcoran, is in deep financial trouble. The attached art school seems to be doing much better—it has students who pay tuition.
The Gallery doesn’t have enough gate. It’s one of the few museums in Washington to charge admission, but it draws only 70,000 visitors per year (it doesn’t help that it’s open only five days a week). It can display only a fraction of its large collection; it’s got millions of dollars in deferred maintenance; it’s run deficits for seven out of the last 10 years; its endowment has shrunk; and it’s not getting enough grants and donations to sustain itself.
The Corcoran’s exhibits have been erratic and, with a few exceptions, have not brought much critical acclaim, especially when it has heavyweight competitors like the National Gallery and the National Museum of American Art—which, unlike the Corcoran, are heavily subsidized by the American tax payer.
The Corcoran’s current troubles began in 1989 when it garnered unwanted national attention by canceling a controversial Mapplethorpe photo exhibition, a move that made it lasting enemies both on the Left and the Right.
A decade later, with the Gallery already in serious financial trouble, a new director came on board. He spearheaded the drive for a huge addition, with the eventual price tag of $200 million, to be designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, whose crumpled design looked like a 747 had plowed into the Corcoran’s Beaux Arts building.
It was an architectural middle finger to the White House and the other nearby stately neoclassical buildings, but the Corcoran’s leadership believed that its hipness would juice up the Gallery’s image and bring hordes of visitors. They desperately needed an attention-grabber.
But it never happened. They never managed to raise more than $28 million for the project, $17 million of which went to Gehry for his design, and the project was canceled in 2005. The whole affair was a futile waste of money, time and energy—and, like the Mapplethorpe exhibition, an example of how, in its search for the sensational, the Corcoran’s leadership failed.
Now the financial problems have ballooned to the point where they threaten the Gallery’s existence.
Whether it stays or goes, the Corcoran’s survival depends on it finding an identity that defines what it is and why it’s worth the time and price of a visit, especially in a city where the national museums are free.
The Phillips Gallery, which also charges a fee, has done this successfully so far by staying true to the modernist vision of its founder. The Corcoran might do something similar by concentrating on one area where it is particularly strong—say, American painting or photography—or by mining its own collection for attractive exhibitions.
It would be a pity to lose this venerable institution, but without a compelling identity, even a move to the suburbs won’t save it. As unpleasant as it may sound, it may just be that the Corcoran’s future is really in the past.
Bruce Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.