Terrance Shanahan felt as if he were “running to the sound of gunfire” when he joined dozens of concerned supporters of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art and Design at a hastily arranged public forum at the gallery last month. Gallery leaders realized that, for the third time in 23 years, they faced a community relations crisis on top of a financial emergency. Shanahan wanted to help.
Corcoran Director Fred Bollerer offered reasons for the board of trustees’ controversial June 4 decision to consider selling the historic building near the White House and possibly moving to the suburbs. Basically, Bollerer said, the gallery was verging on broke. The Corcoran was about to post its second $7 million deficit in a row, and it would cost at least $130 million to renovate the building.
Where could so much money come from?
Shanahan, a Washington office worker from northern Maryland, had become a member of the Corcoran earlier in the year. When he heard news of the possible move, he said, he bumped up his membership from “supporting” ($160) to “contributing” ($500), to help the Corcoran stay put — though he was never solicited by the Corcoran.
On the day of the forum, Shanahan did receive a fundraising appeal — from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where he had also been a member.
“Why am I not getting the same e-mail from the Corcoran?” Shanahan asked himself. “Why don't they ask every member to upgrade their membership one level?”
The Corcoran’s woes are deep, complicated and decades old, but Shanahan’s experience distills the essence of the problem: At critical moments, the gallery has repeatedly failed to make its own best case to even its best friends.
Unable to present a consistently clear pitch for itself, the Corcoran has made it too easy for major donors to drift to more predictable — and prestigious — art charities, such as the Smithsonian and the National Gallery.
Now, with the Corcoran’s annual fundraising, membership and attendance at their lowest ebb in decades, it’s not just the $500 givers who have felt curiously ignored.
“I haven’t gotten a phone call from anyone at the Corcoran in five years,” said Tony Podesta, a lobbyist who, with his wife, Heather, is a leading art collector. He estimates that the couple has donated 150 works to the Corcoran over the years. “We still occasionally give them works of art, although it’s a little bit nerve-racking not to know what the future holds.”
“Years ago, we went to the Corcoran Ball,” the gallery’s key annual fundraiser, said Wayne Reynolds, former chairman of Ford’s Theatre and husband of millionaire philanthropist Catherine Reynolds. “I’ve never been asked back that I know of. I haven’t really been approached [for a contribution]. It’s not really on my radar screen.”
One arts patron with millions to dispose of said, “I haven’t been asked to give.” And, when the patron’s organization has rented the Corcoran for elegant gatherings, unlike at other venues that take the opportunity to market themselves, “I’ve never met anybody from the Corcoran. Nobody is there to tell me how great they are. I don’t think they’re really in fundraising mode.”
The reason has to do with erratic leadership, poor timing and bad luck over the years. More fundamental has been the lack of a clear sense of identity and mission.
Washington’s oldest private art museum, founded in 1869, has been trying to figure out its niche in the capital’s cultural eco-system ever since its primacy was upended in 1937, when Andrew Mellon and Congress launched the National Gallery of Art as a well-endowed, taxpayer-subsidized model.
Big plans end with whimpers
The Corcoran has never enjoyed a huge cash endowment. Financier William Wilson Corcoran’s principal gifts to the museum were its original building — now the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery — and the founding collection of American art. By the time he died in 1888, Corcoran had also given $1.6 million, according to press accounts then.
The Corcoran used some of its money to purchase land and commission the 1897 construction of its current home, the beaux-arts landmark on 17th Street NW. A benefactor underwrote an expansion in the 1920s, and, in 1925, the endowment stood at $1 million ($13 million in current dollars.)
The gallery established itself as an important national venue. Its biennial survey of contemporary American art was a vital happening on the national art scene for much of the 20th century.
From the earliest days, to help with operating expenses, the Corcoran charged admission. In 1910, it was 25 cents. That common practice loomed as a handicap as Washington filled with free museums. For several years starting in 1979, oil tycoon Armand Hammer, a trustee, underwrote free admission. But entry fees returned and now are $8 to $10.