Concerns over money and gallery space have leaders at the Corcoran Gallery contemplating a move away from the District. The city’s oldest private museum owns a world-class collection of American art and runs an art school in its historic beaux arts building across the street from the White House. But last month its board moved to put the building on the market. We examine the controversy at the Corcoran.
- David Montgomery Reporter, Washington Post
- Jayme McLellan Member, Save the Corcoran; Director & Founder, Civilian Art Projects
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen news broke that the Corcoran was putting its historic building on the market, it left many people scratching their heads. After all, Washington's oldest private cultural institution seems to have everything it would need to survive and to thrive -- a world class collection of American art, a successful arts school and a beautiful and historic Beaux-Arts building located across the street from the White House.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut last month, the board of trustees unanimously voted to explore selling that historic building, citing financial pressures and the need for more space. They insist no decision has been made yet, but critics say they have made up their minds about pulling up stakes and heading out to the suburbs. Joining us to discuss this is David Montgomery. He's a reporter for The Washington Post. David, thank you for joining us.
MR. DAVID MONTGOMERYIt's great to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso, in studio with us is Jayme McLellan, member of Save the Corcoran. That's a group that's mobilizing to prevent the sale of the building. She is director and founder of Civilian Art Projects. She's taught courses at the Corcoran College of Art and Design though she is not a member of the faculty. Jayme McLellan, thank you for joining us.
MS. JAYME MCLELLANThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you have comments or questions, you can call us at 800-433-8850. How much trouble do you think the Corcoran is in? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question, make a comment there. David, there's widespread disagreement about why the Corcoran is under duress, but there is no disagreement that it is in trouble.
NNAMDIYou recently sat down with the top brass of the institution -- by the way, we did invite the Corcoran to participate in this conversation. It declined. But, David, give us a sense of what the challenges are. You got a breakdown of their finances from them?
MONTGOMERYYes. The biggest challenge that they say they face -- and I'm speaking of Fred Bollerer, who's the president and director of The Corcoran, and Harry Hopper, who's the chairman of the board of trustees. They say it boils down to one number, if you want to really make it simple. It's $130 million, which is what they say would be the costs to stay in that historic building. They say that maintenance has been deferred for years and perhaps decades.
MONTGOMERYAnd they think that the responsible thing to do is to at least consider moving elsewhere to see if it would be somehow more affordable to pull up stakes and start anew elsewhere. And the big -- they've done a bit of looking into how could you raise $130 million. And they seem skeptical that just seven years after the Corcoran failed to raise $200 million for a huge expansion in 2005, they basically had to pull the plug on that.
MONTGOMERYNow, they're facing $130 million just to restore the building, and there are many other costs, they would say, attached to that. You have to relocate the college during a period of renovation. You have beef up your endowment in order to be able to support the huge deficits they've been running. So they think $130 million is the least of it, and it may go up. You hear them talk about 200 or more.
NNAMDIThe Corcoran may have declined to participate in this conversation, but they have insisted in interviews with David Montgomery and other outlets that they have not made up their minds about selling the building. Jayme McLellan, you are skeptical about those claims. Where do we stand right now from your perspective?
MCLELLANWell, Save the Corcoran, which is a coalition of artists, students, faculty, donors, alumni and other supporters, who strongly oppose the sale of this national historic landmark building, we think that if you invest the time in putting a request for proposals out into the world to buy a new building and to sell your old building, you are very seriously considering selling your home, your museum. And that's why the community of stakeholders is so outraged that no one was consulted a few years ago when they started this process.
MCLELLANThey've been open in saying they started examining options two years ago. If the option to sell the home was on the table, the community of stakeholders should have informed at that -- informed at that point and they were not.
NNAMDIDavid, on the surface, the Corcoran would seem to have all the elements that it would need to be a successful institution. It owns a great collection of American art, widely considered among the best in the world for that genre. It occupies a beautiful historic building just across the street from the White House. Its college of arts seems to be fairly successful. What -- what's -- why is the Corcoran in trouble?
MONTGOMERYWell, they -- the deferred maintenance that I already mentioned. They make a counterpoint, an interesting one that we've -- a colleague of mine has tried to explore. They say this location, as high profile as it is, is not as great an advantage as it might appear. Ever since 9/11 and, frankly the Oklahoma City bombing, when E Street was closed in 1995 and 9/11 after security downtown has been beefed up, they say there are lots of interruptions to tourist flow down 17th Street, which is the street that they're located on.
MONTGOMERYThey sort of issued reporters a challenge: Go stand at the same time of day on 15th Street and stand at the same time of day on 17th Street and count the tourists walking down towards the mall. The other thing that they'll say is that they are not a mall museum. Here in Washington, we're very used to being able to get into -- getting into most museums for free. They charge $8 to $10, depending if you're a senior or a student, to get into the Corcoran.
MONTGOMERYAnd tourists who have heard about how their taxpayer dollars are paying for all these wonderful museums in Washington, they hear $8 to $10, I imagine many of them they hear that and they say, well, why don't I just go to the National Gallery of Art, which is -- has a great collection and it's free?
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Do you think it's possible for a private art institution to survive and thrive in a city like Washington, where there are so many public museums? 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Jayme, the Corcoran has cited a variety of concerns to explain its decision to list the building. But one interesting argument is that the building is both inadequate and too expensive. First, in your view, is there enough space at the current location?
MCLELLANWell, no one would deny that the school needs more space. I think that that's been talked about for 20 years or longer. The college definitely needs more space. There's a Corcoran campus that has ample land around it. That could be considered for expansion. And most museums deal with difficulty in housing their collection, showing their collection. It's a challenge that museums face every day, and they succeed at conquering these challenges.
MCLELLANThere was an article by Jacqueline Trescott, I think, last week, where she compared other museums, other private museums in the city to the Corcoran. She compared the Museum of Women in the Arts, the Phillips, the Kreeger to the Corcoran. And all those museums are private, privately funded. Some of them are in isolated locations, and they're all thriving. Most of them have endowments, and they -- none of them had any sizable deficits.
MCLELLANAnd, again, Save the Corcoran really feels like this is a board leadership problem. This is not just my view. It's been stated by Philip Kennicott in The Post, Tyler Green in Modern Art Notes, The Wall Street Journal. Museum experts have been pouring in with this. When you stop -- when you don't have the political will to do a good job for your museum, you kind of lose focus and lose the ability to get your community to support you.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you mentioned the Philip Kennicott piece in The Washington Post yesterday because he examined some of the underlying structural issues at play here. You mentioned boards. He drew parallels to some of the other high-profile examples of dysfunction with boards at nonprofits, starting with the University of Virginia, but he also mentioned the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Where does, if at all, board politics fit into this, David Montgomery?
MONTGOMERYWell, the board has been pretty locked down. I think they've -- they're not talking very much publicly. They seem to be in unanimity. We've been told that the vote to consider moving and to see what price they could get was a unanimous vote. However, privately and from the few board members I've been able to get a sense of where they stand, there are a number -- I don't know how many on the board.
MONTGOMERYThe board has about, I think, about 15 people on it. There are a number who really don't want to move even though they voted for this research they call the sort of information gathering.
NNAMDIWhy is this unanimity beginning to sound like the University of Virginia? But go ahead. Please continue the story.
MONTGOMERYIt's a good example. And so they -- for -- they felt more knowledge is better than less knowledge, and why not see what the market will bear? And if the numbers crunchers are telling us we're in such a crisis, let's call their bluff -- these are my words -- and let's just see what it would cost to move if we decided to move. I don't think that -- I don't think there's unanimous support on the board for moving. There's -- there was unanimous support for looking into it.
NNAMDIHere's Tom in Washington, D.C. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Tom. Are you there?
NNAMDIGo right ahead, please.
TOMI was going to say, you know, it seems like the board has done all this in private without involving any of the stakeholders. And usually when people do things and don't let people know about it, they have something to hide. So I wonder if any -- if David's investigations have shown whether any of the board members have profited from the decision they already made to sell the parking lot behind the building or this future sale.
NNAMDIFilthy lucre is the basis of all of this maybe.
MONTGOMERYFollow the money. I have not found that, that any board member would profit from these explorations.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Tom. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. The number is 800-433-8850, or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. We're talking about the future of the Corcoran and the controversy surrounding that. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing the future of the Corcoran Gallery with David Montgomery -- he's a reporter with The Washington Post -- and Jayme McLellan. She's a member of Save the Corcoran, a group that is mobilizing to prevent the sale of the building. She's director and founder of Civilian Art Projects. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from GroovyGirl, (sp?) who writes, "The Corcoran is too expensive, but it's a lovely experience and totally worth it. Advertise. Promote it more." And this tweet we got from DelongOnline (sp?). "That argument just about sums it up: free museum versus fee museum. I'd say free wins. I can see why they're considering the move." We move on now to Linda in Arlington, Va. Linda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LINDAGood afternoon, Kojo.
LINDAI'm curator emeritus from the Corcoran. I worked there for 28 years. I have studied as a painter with Gene Davis and have had graduate studies at the University of Virginia, Delaware and Harvard.
NNAMDIYou are Linda Crocker Simmons.
LINDAThat's correct. I sent you an extended email expressing my view.
NNAMDII was just pretending to be psychic. But go ahead, please. It did come with your extended email. Yes.
LINDAWell, I think that the idea to dispense with the building by sale or in any other form is really, really the wrong approach and does not show, as Philip Kennicott has indicated, the kind of stewardship and care that this viable institution, which is a national, national institution, it is both a museum and a school. And in my observation, which is over three decades of work with the institution, the great value of it lies in what Mr. Corcoran founded it to do to encourage the American genius, which is the creative end of the process and then the preservation and presentation of it.
LINDAAnd one of the great things that the Corcoran always offered and that no other institution in this country does is provide both sides of that experience. Gene Davis, as a painter, I can remember him walking through the building and commenting on -- and his insights were valuable. He'd comment on the French 19th century sculptor Bari, and his insights were just revelation to me as a curator and an inspiration to his students, individuals who were learning and beginning their creative lives.
LINDAAnd this symbiotic relationship works so well in that building. The building was designed to do this. It has an exhibition portion, and it has the education portion. And the relationship of the two is seen in the building and has, for 15 years, survived there. I think this board needs to find other ways to encourage, keep it there and make it grow.
NNAMDIWell, Philip Kennicott wrote not only about the collection and the college, he also wrote about the community and the toughness of working, all of those three together. Two questions, one for you, David Montgomery, these have been a tough couple of years for non-profits and arts institutions with the downturns in the economy and many local and federal funding sources beginning to dry up. How much of this problem is external, out of the Corcoran board's control?
MONTGOMERYI think some of it definitely is that Corcoran, along with many arts organizations in the last couple of years, has lost just a big important grant that came through D.C. and the federal government. I think in the economic downturn, people can't be expected to give as much as they have. That said, I don't think that completely lets the board and the leadership off the hook.
MONTGOMERYIf you look back 10 years, I've been reading tax filings of the Corcoran going back a lot of years, and I think in seven of the last 10 years, it's run a deficit. And, you know, that predates the recession, and I think that there -- there's no simple answer, but I think all of these are factors.
NNAMDIJayme, you dispute that because it's a non-profit in these kind of recessionary times, that that should be a sufficient reason for the Corcoran to be in the financial position it is now. You and Save the Corcoran believe there are other options that could work to keep the Corcoran where it is and to ensure that the museum continues. What are they?
MCLELLANYeah. I believe that the solutions -- Save the Corcoran believes that the solutions that can keep that building alive and thriving are to be found in the community that supports, loves and utilizes the Corcoran. Those solutions have to come from the ground up and they have to be welcomed by a very closed-door leadership process that's happening right now. One of the things we're calling for is transparency and cooperation from leadership to better understand the situation.
MCLELLANWe're working with the community to create an alternative plan, one that does not include selling the building. The plan seeks to transparently analyze what can be done to save the Corcoran and to really look at how fundraising has happened over the past many years. From 2006 until 2010, it's down 75 percent. We kind of feel -- it's a consensus among the group that fundraising has kind of stalled or stopped. I was with a group of donors and alumni last night, and none of them have been asked to up their membership or even renew their membership.
MCLELLANAlumni dues is at an all-time low with alumni not being asked for request for money. You know, and one little pot of money is not going to solve all the problems, but a bunch of creative solutions and a big groundswell of support will create the momentum and the will to change the future of the Corcoran. But the big problem now, Kojo, is that now that leadership has come out with this decision, saying we're on life support, we have to get out of here we have to look at selling our building, now that that's happened, who is really going to invest big dollars in the Corcoran until there is a reinvention?
MCLELLANAnd reinvention, you know, it happens with leadership. It happens with recreating the mission, how you reinvent it. I don't really think it's a problem to walk down 17th Street. There are hundreds of people walking down that street every day. It's, how do you get them in, how do you engage with your community?
NNAMDILinda, thank you very much for your call. We don't usually trade in conspiracy theories here, David, but there is another local news story that does seem, well, relevant. The city of Alexandria recently approved an ambitious plan to reinvigorate its downtown waterfront which would include a museum. That museum is supposed to be dedicated to the history of the city, but some people think they may want the Corcoran and that the Corcoran may want them. What intelligence can you share?
MONTGOMERYI -- that's been the rumor for many months and you can sort of -- there are many tea leaves to put together, including a number of people at the Corcoran who have ties to Alexandria, who live in Alexandria. The Corcoran has flatly denied that they have picked a location to move to, and the waterfront plan in Alexandria, as I understand it, is quite controversial and in dispute and perhaps maybe headed to further litigation and discussion.
MONTGOMERYAnd I think for them to put all their eggs in that basket, even if they were secretly doing that, would perhaps open them up for a delay. But the truth is, I don't know. I just do know that those favors...
NNAMDIWe've had a lot of discussion about that waterfront dispute on this broadcast. We got an email from Rachel, who says, "Hello. My husband and I live in Old Town Alexandria, and we're so thrilled when there was a rumor that the Corcoran would move here. It would be such a perfect compliment to the Old Town art scene. And with The Washington Post terminals on the brink of being demolished with the final approval of a new waterfront plan, Corcoran would be the ideal addition to the waterfront."
NNAMDIWe got this posting on our website from John, "Selling and moving to Alexandria seems foolish, especially considering there are buildings in DC that have plenty of square footage." And he goes on to recommend hooking up with the Douglas Development to get the old Hecht campus. What do you think about that idea?
MCLELLANStay in your current home. Stay in your museum. Figure out the solutions from the community. One of the things Fred Bollerer said to me in a sit-down meeting, he said, this board refuses to kick the can further down the street because that can is broken. And I think he's referring to other boards and other leadership pushing this financial position over the years. But if you can't fix your problem where you are, what makes you think you're going to be able to fix it somewhere else? I...
NNAMDIWell, here's Mark in Silver Spring suggestion, and I wanted to make sure this was raised. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKWhy, thank you. I think another consideration which doesn't seem to be considered is instead of saving the Corcoran, how about just saving the building? I personally think the Corcoran has outlived its life and is no longer relevant -- the museum I mean, not the school -- and I think a solution, which probably is simplistic and certainly would change things, is to just let the museum expire, sell the American collection to the National Museum of American Art, give the endowment to the school and let the school take whole building over.
MONTGOMERYWell, the Corcoran is basically two institutions, a school and a museum, which served different constituencies, maybe. Is that part of the problem? Is the museum, do you see, as part of the Corcoran's future, Jayme?
MCLELLANWell, the college brings in about $19 million out of a -- just under $30 million budget, and so that's a sizable chunk, certainly, of revenue. If you're looking at things from a corporate mentality, you look at that chunk and you say, that's where our money is coming from. But if you have a background in fundraising, have a background in nonprofit fundraising -- and I've worked in -- I've started arts organizations. If you look at how money comes in for a cultural institution, it's very different than how you think about getting money in kind of a corporate mindset.
NNAMDIYou only got about 20 seconds.
MCLELLANMoney comes from the community, and you have to give them a reason to give. You have to give them a vision for giving. And that's something that has been absent. But in terms of numbers, 30 Americans brought in record numbers, and that exhibition just happened. The Corcoran is relevant.
NNAMDIDavid Montgomery, we'll be relying on you to continue to follow this story.
MONTGOMERYI will. Thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIDavid Montgomery, he has his assignment both from The Washington Post and from this broadcast. He's a reporter for The Washington Post.
MCLELLANKojo, can I...
NNAMDIJayme McLellan, you got 10 seconds.
MCLELLANYeah, can I say, please, go to savethecorcoran.org and sign our petition? It's on change.org. You can Google the Corcoran there or go to savethecorcoran.org.
NNAMDIJayme McLellan, she is a member of Save the Corcoran, the group that's mobilizing to prevent the sale of the building. She's director and founder of Civilian Arts Projects. She has taught courses at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, though she is not a member of the faculty. Thank you both for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.