Wayne Reynolds and Catherine Reynolds attend the reopening celebration… (Abby Brack/Getty Images )
Wayne Reynolds, the brash former chairman of Ford’s Theatre, where he led a $54 million capital expansion campaign, said he could similarly revitalize the financially struggling Corcoran Gallery of Art — if only the Corcoran would make him chairman.
Corcoran executives are cool to his overtures, in an unusually public spat that violates the genteel norms of cultural Washington, where deals are cut and leaders are deposed in private, and the result is unveiled with public relations pep and precision.
“I feel like they’re forcing my hand” to go public “before they do something stupid” without him, Reynolds said in an interview. “I think it’s the greatest philanthropic opportunity in town for the next 20 years. It’s shameful what’s happened there.”
In broad strokes, Reynolds proposes what he calls the Corcoran Center for Creativity. He would expand the Corcoran College of Art and Design, adding a stronger focus on technology and new media, along with the traditional arts disciplines. He would de-emphasize the gallery, arguing that it can’t compete with the free, federally funded galleries in town.
Most controversially, he proposes selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art that rarely, if ever, gets displayed and is not central to founder William Corcoran’s original charge in 1869 for the institution to encourage “American genius.” The money would establish a huge endowment for the first time in the Corcoran’s history. But such a move would flout a strong taboo in the museum world against selling art for any purpose other than acquiring more art. The Corcoran would risk a reprimand from a leading trade organization, the Association of Art Museum Directors.
“I say, let’s be the greatest in the world at something,” Reynolds said. “We can’t be the greatest art museum and the greatest school; we don’t have the assets anymore. . . . If we could create a center that was the nexus of technology innovation, the arts and creativity, and create a paradigm that’s never been done before, it would be a home run not only for the community but also the nation.”
The Corcoran, which last year controversially considered selling its historic building near the White House to help balance its budget, is nearing the conclusion of an almost year-long process to reinvent itself and forge a sustainable future. It has explored collaborations with a number of potential institutional and philanthropic partners, and has said it would announce a plan in coming weeks.
Reynolds, too, was invited to present his vision to a committee of Corcoran trustees in January, but said he has heard almost nothing since.
“The Corcoran finds it unfortunate that Mr. Reynolds is attempting to circumvent what we consider the normal governance process,” said Mimi Carter, the Corcoran’s vice president for marketing and communications. “He’s doing this by attempting to nominate himself to the board through this public lobbying effort, in a manner that no nonprofit anywhere is going to allow to happen.”
Harry Hopper, a venture capitalist and art collector, has been the board’s chairman since 2009. He referred a reporter to Carter for comment.
“We are not currently in conversations with Mr. Reynolds, and no further conversations are scheduled at this time,” Carter added.
As chairman of Ford’s for six years, until his term ended in June, Reynolds helped lead the effort to upgrade the theater and create the $25 million Center for Education and Leadership across the street from it.
“Wayne brought a vision that was unparalleled in the history of Ford’s,” said Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s. “He saw an institution that had never really raised more than annual operating money. We put forward a plan at the beginning of his chairmanship that I think at the time was to raise $20 million — which was unprecedented in our history. He said, ‘We can do that, but that’s not enough.’ And we ended up raising over $54 million.
“The brilliance of Wayne is that he’s a dreamer and a visionary and he inspires other people to get behind it.”
However, Reynolds has never led a strictly arts institution, or a college. Yet he and his wife, Catherine Reynolds, have given tens of millions of dollars to a range of arts, cultural and educational institutions in the past decade, using money from a foundation controlled by Catherine Reynolds.
Reynolds also is chairman and chief executive of the Academy of Achievement, a nonprofit foundation that invites exceptional college and graduate students from across the country to regular gatherings to meet political leaders, Nobel laureates, artists and other high-achievers. Hundreds of participants over the years have included five former presidents plus Barack Obama before he was president; Bob Dylan, Robert Rauschenberg, Steve Jobs, Toni Morrison and Martin Scorsese (as well as Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee).