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Possible Abandonment of Corcoran Gallery’s Historic Museum Building and Relocation to Suburbs Deplored

By Anthony L. Harvey

Accompanying images can be viewed in the current issue PDF

In a well-publicized but sparsely attended August 2nd public discussion of the future and direction of the role of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC’s increasingly important position as one of the world’s leading art exhibition venues, several dozen art lovers — including poets, visual and performance artists, curators, journalists, and the eternally curious, hopeful for some revelation that might explain the recent collapse of artistic and managerial leadership on the part of the Corcoran’s Board of Trustees and its administrative staff — sat in patient attendance before a panel of four, either puzzled or incredulous or both artists and Corcoran staff members who attempted an evening of the impossible: namely, answering the observations and pleas of outraged and articulate questioners railing against the Corcoran’s decision to shop its historic flagship building at 17th Street and New York Avenue to the highest and best use real estate bidder, whereupon the Galley and its College would then move to one of more new locations that might better serve the Gallery’s “futures” direction.

This Corcoran “futures” direction apparently focuses on art education — particularly that of the Gallery’s “positive cash flow” college, and its burgeoning set of all-age arts activities and continuing education programs for adults.

Background to the August 2nd Community Meeting

This August 2nd meeting was a follow-on to a well-attended but desultory June 14th community public meeting, itself an outgrowth of an earlier June announcement by the Corcoran of the prospective sale of its historic building one block from the White House which caught the Washingtonian arts community — and Washington generally — by complete surprise. Further, the June 14th meeting was structured like a corporate down-sizing and non-performing assets announcement with programmed Q and A backed by scripted Corcoran College staff, officials, curators and trustees who were called upon to rebut community questioners, often in harshly argumentative fashion.

Corcoran CEO and Gallery Director Fred Bollerer spent no time during the evening outlining a program to re-vivify the museum’s faltering art exhibition program nor of any plans or efforts by the museum to further strengthen the its role vis-à-vis other Washington arts venues or in collaboration with national and local artists. Neither was there any outlining of efforts to engage with both local art institutions and recognized art galleries and museums throughout the country, as the Corcoran has so successfully done in the past. Rather, Bollerer spoke of the Corcoran’s goal to provide everyone in the Washington metropolitan area with the opportunity for arts education “from birth to senility.”

Toward the end of the June 14th meeting, attendees strenuously pointed out that no real discussion had occurred by Corcoran staff or officials regarding plans to strengthen and re-energize the Corcoran’s art exhibitions mission. Subsequently, the Corcoran announced plans for two August meetings, with this August 2nd meeting being about the art gallery and the second, planned for August 23rd, focusing on the college.

Bollerer, who comes from a background of banking and finance, having previously held important positions with a series of famously failed banking institutions, including Continental of Illinois, First National City Bank of Houston, and Washington’s own Riggs National Bank, was appointed to the Corcoran from a subsequent background of non-profit employment with firms distributing philanthropist’s funds and exploring start-up and turn-around corporate strategies. Bollerer lists no prior experience with arts or art educational organizations nor with fund-raising and development. His appointment, announced earlier by the Corcoran’s Board of Trustees Chairman, Harry F. Hopper III, communications (mobile and broadband) venture capitalist and partner at Columbia Capital, surprised many. Hopper, however, was not present at either the June or August community meetings, and apparently has no plans to attend the August 23rd session, as well. Bollerer, however, did attend the August 2nd meeting but sat toward the back, said nothing, and left prior to the meeting’s somewhat chaotic conclusion.

The August 2nd Meeting’s Four-Person Panel

Meeting in the museum’s ample-sized, Greek amphitheater-style Hammer Auditorium, a small panel of two artists and two Corcoran staff members faced an even relatively smaller gathering of community attendees. The panel consisted of the following: William (Bill) Dunlap, a respected and successful Washington artist, educator, and well-known raconteur on WETA’s “Around Town”; Holly Bass, a sprightly and engaging poet and performance artist; Phillip Brookman, the museum’s highly regarded photography curator and author; and moderator Mark Swartz, a well-credentialed, newly hired Corcoran development communications specialist.

The eloquent Bill Dunlap led off the evening, who, expressing his incredulity at the Corcoran’s recent decisions, reminded the audience of the monumental Ernest Flagg building as being the Corcoran’s greatest art work, of his own and many other Washington and area artist’s experiences of having been nurtured to successful careers by the Corcoran and its exhibition programs, and of the inexplicable series of Corcoran management decisions to sell or jettison buildings and land that could have been used to resolve funding, income stream, and additional exhibition space for both works in the Corcoran’s own outstanding collections, especially in American art and photography, and for special exhibitions. These indefensible decisions, said Dunlap, have been accompanied by an increasing disconnect between the Corcoran and the Washington arts community. Dunlap’s impassioned pleas went unanswered from any Corcoran Gallery staff; nor did Holly Bass’ account of her contemporary experiences with the Corcoran in, for example, serving as a juror for the current “Take It To The Bridge” series of avant-garde performance pieces, garner any Corcoran management responsive enthusiasm. Brookman spoke of the Corcoran’s continuing severe fund-raising difficulties.

In response, several attendees asked if all the decisions had already been made — this possibly explaining the absence of the Board of Trustees Chairman and the senior Corcoran staff. And indeed, it did seem that the evening was a wake rather than a community awakening or any Corcoran management resuscitation, with Flagg’s monumental Beaux Arts designed building being the corpse, albeit one with exquisitely detailed, severe classical decoration.

It fell to the articulate and powerfully speaking former Corcoran curator, Linda Crocker Simmons, to chronicle and describe the extraordinary legacy of the Corcoran’s past exhibitions and art programs and the excellence of its curatorial staff. Simmons reminded the audience that the Corcoran’s fundamental problems of mission definition, funding, space, connection to the local and national arts community, building and facilities maintenance, and attendance and admission fees would follow the Corcoran wherever it sought to relocate. And a relocation in the suburbs –- stated by the Board as a possibility — would, she concluded, be suicidal.

Repeated questions and suggestions were made that the Trustees recruit an art museum director who would devise an aggressive strategy to save and restore the Corcoran’s building and revive its formally renowned arts program, and to do so in a realistic manner, one that did not look for grandiose new projects — for example, the $17 million dollar Gehry-designed building addition disaster, or the expensive and doubly questionable Randall School site mistake, with all the while the Corcoran over the years selling off the land behind its historic building and never even completing its extraordinary plant and facility.

Many in the Washington arts community are intimately aware of the astonishing nature of the Corcoran building — an ensemble of Flagg’s remarkable design for the 17th Street building, which Frank Lloyd Wright reportedly declared to be the finest building design in Washington, and the Charles Adams Platt extension facing E Street, purpose-built to house and display Senator William Andrew Clark’s enormous and extraordinary collection of European fine art, and the Waddy B. Wood ingenious re-design of the New York Avenue portion of the Flagg building into a two-level interior hemicycle providing a first level auditorium and a second level exhibition gallery, one that could be open in the evening separate from a closed remainder of the rest of the building.

One Corcoran trustee, Henry L. Thaggert III, was present at the August 2nd meeting. Thaggert, who also attended the June 14th meeting and is Senior Counsel for the defense contractor Northrop Grumman, interjected at one point that the Corcoran would be open to a consideration of collaboration with another Washington arts institution. It was the single encouraging response of the evening.

Perhaps the August 23rd session will provide more encouragement for a “Save the Corcoran Movement” but one wonders at the scheduling of these two follow-up meetings in August after the rushed scheduling of the June session. Why these two separate sessions — one on the art gallery and one on the college –- were not scheduled for mid- to late September when many Washingtonians would have returned from their August and Labor Day vacations and Congress would have  returned as well from its August recess has not been publicly explained.