“The Corcoran is gone,” someone shouted loudly and with frustration to me this weekend at an otherwise relaxing dinner party.
The comment didn’t make me mad; it didn’t make me want to cry into my napkin. What he barked was mostly true: The Corcoran, as we know it, is mostly gone. However, “mostly gone” is not all the way dead. Not yet.
As you may know — and I’m not going to rehash the details here — under the current plan created by a questionable Board, the Corcoran will soon be gone. It’s like watching the last buffalo roam the plains: The Corcoran on the verge of extinction; the oldest art museum in D.C.; a time capsule not only of American art, but of American history, about to transform into history itself. A 145-year legacy dissolved into name only, its great parts cut up and given away.
But isn’t a legacy something worth continuing? Meaning: We don’t have to dismember the past to move into the future. And if it is possible to save the Corcoran, shouldn’t we do everything we can — now — to try? We will never get this chance again.
The Corcoran does not have to be swallowed by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University. If it is swallowed, it will be digested. If it is joined by them in partnership, with others, these venerable institutions can help the Corcoran to re-invent and stabilize itself, so that it can continue to inspire in its own unique way.
It is not too late. We can intervene before the dissolution.
Sometimes things reveal their own truth in layers. And the big truth here is that we really, really need the Corcoran. At this time in our nation’s history, there has never been a more important time to have a place designed for society to unite through art in a creative space. Museums and colleges succeed every day. It can happen.
But there’s no money, he said at dinner.
There is money. There’s an unprecedented amount of capital in Washington, and we have a solid way to tap the big resources while creating a plan to embrace grassroots support and a rapidly growing D.C. middle-class.
And, remember when Wayne Reynolds reached out to try to help the Corcoran? He meant it. Don’t forget that Mr. Reynolds is the guy who stepped in at Ford’s Theater when it was struggling financially and its old building needed repairs. In short order, he rebuilt the board, grew a $50 million endowment, and funded the renovation that has revitalized a place of historical significance.
He can do this for the Corcoran, as well. But we must come together, trust each other, and build something a little different and a lot better than what we were left with at the end. We can transform the sad, dying culture of the Corcoran back into one of inspiration and innovation. Many of the parts of the institution were, until a few months ago, still working. The Corcoran isn’t yet gone. Let’s not talk about her like she’s already dead.
Technically, the Board has just filed with the D.C. Superior Court a petition for cy pres to break the deed that established the Corcoran in 1869. Citing that they could not make it work under the original deed and charter, they will break its original founding doctrine.
The hearing for cy pres will happen on July 18, 2014. The Corcoran, as we know it, is not undone until the deed has been broken. And if it is broken, this is what we will lose:
- We lose Washington’s first art museum.
- We lose the third oldest museum in the nation.
- We lose an independent voice for the creative — a big one.
- We lose a place where young minds learn to make art; this means learning how to solve problems creatively.
- We lose an independent, creative voice not tied to the money of the state or the nation, but interdependent with its people.
- We lose a gathering place for the community (local, national and international) to come together for any reason we can collectively imagine through art.
- We lose a collection of 18,000 works of art which, kept together, could tell/present the story of the arts in Washington, D.C.
- We lose the Corcoran Archive, a resource which helps us remember and understand the past of the arts in Washington.
If we lose the Corcoran, in all but name only, we lose a great opportunity to create a space of pure inspiration. A place where the greatest inventions of the greatest minds could be shared, discussed, and integrated into our culture. This place could not only encourage the American Genius, as Mr. Corcoran set as the mission for his museum, it could inspire the American genius to action. We haven’t done this work yet – this is Corcoran phase two. There is no place in the world like what the Corcoran can be; and believe me, the path it’s on is not going to take it there.
Can we, at this moment in our shared history, afford to lose a place with this much potential?
The current deal put together by the Corcoran’s current Board of Trustees would mean:
- George Washington University gets the historic building, a time capsule of architecture and the crown-jewel of the Corcoran itself.
- George Washington University gets $16 million annually in tuition from the college.
- George Washington University gets up to $55 million in the Corcoran’s bank account recently accumulated through sold art, a bequest, and parking lot money – money that belongs to the Corcoran legacy, its students, its alumni, and its faculty and staff.
- The National Gallery of Art gets whatever art it wants, out of a picked apart historic collection, and some gallery space in the Corcoran where it will host contemporary exhibitions, NGA-style — i.e., conservative, and tied to public money. It will not be taking great risks. It will not be an innovator.
Wait a minute.
The same leaders who let fundraising slip from $16 million (in 2002) to $3 million today get to continue to call the shots?
The same leaders who, while spending almost two million dollars on consultants to tell them what to do, considered selling the flagship building and moving to Alexandria?
The same leaders who flubbed the deal with the University of Maryland after keeping staff and faculty waiting for resolution?
The same leadership who did not listen to its staff, alumni, students, members or community?
The same leaders who hired Fred Bollerer and Lauren Garcia — two people with zero experience in running a museum or an institute of higher education, one of whom gave everyone his or her pink slip and told them not to be negative on social media – to run the place? These leaders?
The question is: Are we going to let them?
No amount of planning, or protesting, or legal hoop-jumping is going to change the belief of many who think the Corcoran is already gone. But, fortunately, a core group of students, alumni, faculty, staff, donors, and members of the Corcoran think the Corcoran can be resuscitated. We think the Corcoran can become a place that incorporates the best from its past, while building on its greatest asset – the people who love and believe in it – to carry it into its future.
Imagine the Corcoran as the most amazing institution it can be where anything is possible. Hold that idea in your mind and email me about how you can help save it. It’s not too late.
Jayme McLellan, June 2014