Corcoran Hires Outside Consultants to Shape its Identity

The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has retained Lord Cultural Resources to determine how the institution can continue to survive, and whether its operation should remain linked to the Corcoran College of Art + Design. The Corcoran also plans to lease their adjacent parking lot to a local developer, who will erect an eight-story office building on the site once slated for a Frank Gehry-designed expansion.

The struggling institution is selling property and seeking a new vision for its future.

The Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON, D.C.  The financially precarious Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has retained an outside consultant group to determine how the institution can continue to survive, and whether its operation should remain linked to that of the Corcoran College of Art + Design. The gallery and college also plan to lease their adjacent parking lot to a local developer, who will erect an eight-story office building on the site, which was once slated for a Frank Gehry-designed expansion to the Corcoran. In a recent telephone interview, the Corcoran’s director and president, Fred Bollerer, said that the deal – which requires permits from city agencies to proceed — will reap around $1 million per year in rent, but will not provide more space for the institution.

While Bollerer declined to identify the developer until a deal is signed, he said that the Corcoran has hired Toronto-based consultants Lord Cultural Resources to develop ideas for the institution’s future. The college has been growing, but the museum operation is “unsustainable,” he says, adding that while there is no plan to divest the collection it is not clear what form the museum will take in the future.

Bollerer, a former banker and consultant to nonprofits, has been involved with the Corcoran for several years, first as an outside consultant, then as COO, and finally as director and president. (He replaced Paul Greenhalgh, who resigned in May 2010.) Bollerer has no fine-arts background, but was asked to fill the director role while the institution undertook a strategic self-reassessment. His contract is for two years, ending in June of 2012, he says.

“The reason I was asked” to take the job, he explains, “is that we had decided as a board to begin to look at what the Corcoran would be 25 years from now, and what it would take to get that done. We wanted a really fresh look at the organization, not as a museum and a college, but as a center for excellence and learning and a pretty spectacular collection, and how those could be rewoven into something that might end up being a college and a museum or it might not be. It might be something else.”

The trustees opted to bring in the well-known nonprofit strategists Barry and Gail Lord, whose clients have ranged from small organizations to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Tourism and Development Investment Corporation of Abu Dhabi.

Bollerer declines to say what the Corcoran is paying Lord, but says that the initial one-year contract covers a four-phase process that will include “research and analysis, and throwing out a bunch of preliminary concepts,” together with a feasibility study, an examination of the conceptual scheme, and finally implementation to commence at the end of 2011.

The assignment is to consider how to reconfigure the Corcoran’s assets into “something that will be relevant 25 years from now,” says Bollerer. His outlook suggests that he favors the self-sustaining college over the deficit-plagued museum, and he hints at their possible increased independence. “I’m not so sure that a museum that struggles to cover its expenses annually and a college that’s doing very well and growing very nicely but is basically a separate organization today can survive in that form,” he says. “Now, I’m not so sure that they can’t, but the idea here is to have these people come in and take us through the exercise of trying to figure that out.”

Lord will help also to shape the job description of a director who can lead the reformed Corcoran. Bollerer says that ideally the new leader would be in place by September 2011, in time for the start of the school year. (The college also is without a leader; interim president Kirk Pillow is leaving to become provost of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.)

Deficit-plagued museum “stable at an unsustainable long-term level.”

Laying out the Corcoran’s finances, Bollerer says its annual operating budget has hovered around $24 million for the last three years, with around 55 percent going to the college and the balance for the museum. The endowment is less than $23 million, “which obviously is not nearly enough,” he says, and the institution anticipates running a $3 million deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30. On a brighter note, Bollerer claims to have reduced bank debt from $14 million — the amount when he arrived — to around $4 million, most of that financing for renovation of the Corcoran College facility in Georgetown.

But the Corcoran gallery’s future remains in the balance. The former director, Greenhalgh, who left to head the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in England, oversaw a sensible and attractive reinstallation of the collection, restored the building, reopened disused galleries, and mounted worthwhile exhibitions. But he ran deficits, a problem that in combination with the Corcoran’s other chronic affliction — a weak and ungenerous board of trustees — can be catastrophic. Witness the near fatality of Los Angeles’s MOCA.

“The museum performance is stable,” says Bollerer, “at an unsustainable long-term level. You can’t continue to run a museum at the deficit we have, which is obviously one of the reasons we’re going through this planning process now.”

Bollerer says he has no intention to dispense of the Corcoran’s holdings of American and European painting and sculpture, decorative arts, works on paper, and photography. But he is interested in exploring “how to use our collection in redefining how we address the educational arena, to look at education not just as the college,” he says. “What I’ve said to Barry Lord is I want to look at it from kindergarten through dementia. How do we use our collection to expand it to become much more community-relevant in the education arena?”

But in any event, the Corcoran remains in tenuous financial standing. The 2008 market crash led not only to layoffs and trimmed programs but to a sell-off of real estate. First came the sale of a disused public school building in Southwest Washington where the Corcoran had planned to expand the college. It was acquired from the city for $6.2 million in 2006, and when development deals foundered the Corcoran unloaded it to collectors Don and Mera Rubell, and the developer Telesis, for $6.5 million. That amount was well below the assessed value of the property, but roughly at market value, according to Bollerer. The Rubells and Telesis plan to create a museum, hotel, and retail space. (The Corcoran subsequently — and controversially — presented a traveling exhibition of works from the Rubell collection.)

The Corcoran also tried to sell its college building in Georgetown, but withdrew when developer Eastbanc failed to make a nonrefundable deposit, says Bollerer. He says that the Corcoran now plans to retain the property, which may become a site for future expansion of the college.

Model of expansion plan designed by Frank Gehry, a project abandoned by the board of trustees.

Now comes the pending lease that will enable a developer to erect a 120,000-square-foot tower next door. “We wouldn’t sell the property,” says Bollerer. “We would do it as a ground lease because I’d like to have the revenue,” he says, pegging the income as “a little over a million a year” at the outset, with the lease reevaluated after ten years. The Corcoran will have access to some underground parking for events, but will forfeit the option of expanding on site.

Developer's tower proposed for the site.
Developer’s proposed glass tower for the site.

It is a sorry state of affairs when a once distinguished institution must resort to outside consultants to define its identity. But, at this point, that may be just what the Corcoran needs. The institution has never fully regained its footing since 2005 when the board canceled its widely anticipated Gehry-designed expansion for the site that is now to become an office building. Board dissension led to the departure of then-director David Levy and trustee and AOL tycoon Robert Pittman, among many others. By the time Greenhalgh was hired in 2006 the board was further decimated, and a round-robin of chairmen has since failed to generate the sense of shared purpose and ownership that can attract talented leaders capable of planning and completing important projects.

The current board, chaired by Harry Hopper, consists of nine voting members and several non-voting members. (Bollerer says the federal charter establishing the museum limits voting members to nine, and he is seeking legal advice on expanding that number.) Each contributes a minimum of $25,000 per year — which is not enough to support a major cultural organization. If the identity of the museum and college remain ambiguous, the Corcoran will never assemble a powerful and committed board. That is why the current strategic planning process will be a crucial test for the Corcoran, and for Lord Cultural Resources, as well.

Jason Edward Kaufman

This article first appeared on December 27, 2011 at Artinfo.com.

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4 Responses

  1. It is commendable that Mr. Bollerer has engaged the services of Lord Cultural Resources to undertake an objective assessment of the current Corcoran Gallery of Art and its possible strategic direction in the coming years. The Corcoran, over the years, has played an invaluable role in the nation’s capitol and it needs to be restored to its proper, dynamic exhibiting role.

    Nevertheless, the precipitous decision to lease the parking facility, while helping to fill a short-term financial problem for the museum, is fundamentally flawed and circumscribes the strategic work that Lord needs to do. Even before the Trustees have had the benefit of outside counsel, they are allowing one of their most valuable strategic assets, the ability to expand en-situ, to be fretted away for a short-term financial gain.

    If this is allowed, then I don’t hold too much hope that even Lord Cultural Resources can find a viable path for the Corcoran.

    Luis R. Cancel
    Director of Cultural Affairs
    San Francisco Arts Commission

    1. Luis Cancel hit the nail on the head: monetizing the parking lot, the last place the Corcoran could potentially expand on site, is a partial short-term solution to a problem that would not exist had the board responsibly maintained the institution’s finances. Now, the challenge is greater for Lord and the Corcoran to conceive of an exciting vision for the future – a vision that will not only allow the museum and college to survive, but to attract the patronage and staff needed to make them thrive.

  2. I think it is wonderful that a great museum is considering overhauling its identity and its role in the community. I think the rest of us should open our offices to outside ideas as well.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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