Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Corcoran thinking of selling landmarked building, moving

Image:  A model of the architect Frank Gehry's design for an addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. 

The City Paper Arts Desk blog reports that the Corcoran Museum is considering moving to Alexandria.

The Corcoran Museum is screwed in that it has a weak endowment and like all museums in DC that charge admissions that aren't entertainment-focused (e.g., the Spy Museum is very successful), they just can't compete against the free museums on the National Mall, and in any case, the museum lacks a strong identity.

In fact, in 2005, then Post arts critic Blake Gopnik, in "Memo to: The Corcoran Re: Sharpening Your Focus," suggested that the Corcoran re-focus its exhibitions on photography.  Alternatively, because the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Museums can't charge fees for special exhibits, the Corcoran could have focused on being the DC stop for various "blockbuster" shows as they travel to various museums, although granted, there are space issues there.

As far as the general success of the museum is concerned, it has had the misfortune of 2.5 body blows that would kill most museums, the Mapplethorpe photography controversy in 1989, where the museum capitulated to Congressional outcry over showing "dirty" photos ("Corcoran, to Foil Dispute, Drops Mapplethorpe Show" from the New York Times), and the go-for-broke attempt to expand the museum with a wacked addition designed by Gehry ("Corcoran Director Quits; Trustees Shelve Gehry Plans" from the Washington Post [2005]) , which they were never able to pull off and wrecked the board, leadership team, and endowment all at the same time, plus the failure to move the related college campus to Southwest DC at the Randall School--the land was eventually sold off ("Corcoran shelves plans to move college to Randall School" from the Washington Post [2010]).

Clearly, the latter two events are signals, indicators, that there is a management and governance problem of significant proportion, that the museum has lost its way.

These are signs that external intervention is needed, but DC just doesn't have the kind of philanthropic community present in other cities that can step in and bail out museums when they are on the brink of collapse (e.g., MoCA in Los Angeles, "Billionaire Offers Arts Bailout in Los Angeles," from the New York Times [2008]).

I never hear much of the DC Attorney General's office representing the interests of "the people" in these kinds of matters regarding decisions potentially counter to their charter and the public interest made by charities based in DC.  

OTOH, the State Attorney General's office in Pennsylvania was actively involved in matters concerning the Hershey Trust, the Girard Trust, and the Barnes Foundation.  Although, granted, there was some criticism of the State's involvement in each of these matters.

Still, considering that the Corcoran is considering moving, given that it is likely chartered in this city and has tax exempt status in this city, this a matter that should trigger AG involvement and a challenge to such an action, if taken.  

In my observation, there aren't many of these kinds of real estate transactions-moves that I am familiar with that prove to be a big benefit to museums as institutions.  (The Barnes is an odd exception, because other foundations agreed to pay for the move.)

In fact, the AG probably should have challenged the "Capital" Children's Museum's decamping from DC to National Harbor (if it will ever actually reopen) given that so much of its asset base over the years had been contributed by the DC Government.


And yes, this is another example of the need for a comprehensive arts and culture plan for the city, one that looks at the various presenting institutions, and does some scenario planning, to be able to provide the city with a framework for dealing with such contingencies, if they do come up.

There are numerous recent examples of museum mergers and problems.  The recent merger of the National Underground Museum and local history museum in Cincinnati; the shutdown of the Charlotte (NC) Museum of History ("History museum suspending operations, studies new financial model" from the Charlotte Observer), the sale of the Museum of Folk Art's building to MoMA ("MoMA to acquire building from American Folk Art Museum" from ArtFix Daily and "With Help From Friends, Folk Art Museum Will Stay Open" from the New York Times).

(And I have written tons about this in the context of DC.  See "Cultural resources planning in DC: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.")

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