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.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

damned if you do, damned if you don't: art facility relocation decision

 Yesterday there is another piece in the Post ("Corcoran's conundrum: Great location, tricky redevelopment") about the possible move of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its associated art school.

The article can be summarized as (1) that the site is encumbered -- the building is historically designated and close to the White House -- so it can't really be developed in a manner that captures its locational value and therefore revenue; (2) that the building is expensive to renovate, $130 million or so estimates the Corcoran; (3) would likely be of value only to another museum type organization; (4) and local wealthy people like developer Til Hazel don't seem interested in creating vanity museums and purchasing and restoring the property (cf. Eli Broad in Los Angeles) and housing and displaying and presenting their collections; (5) so finding another museum to buy this site will take a long time or may not happen.

Suburban locations aren't necessarily great places to locate arts institutions

The article also says that most of the neighboring jurisdictions are trying to woo the Corcoran as well.  From the article:

Officials from neighboring jurisdictions have begun setting up meetings with Corcoran management to propose locations they hope could lure the museum — and, importantly, its art school — outside of the District. The reasoning goes that moving away from the Mall and its swath of free art museums, as well finding a place where the Corcoran could expand its revenue-producing school, could help the organization regain its financial footing.

“We have been in communication with them and expect that we will be visiting with them in the short term,” said Steve Silverman, director of economic development for Montgomery County. 

Should the Corcoran move to a neighborhood such as Wheaton, Silverman said, it might help kick off a resurgence akin to the one Silver Spring experienced after the American Film Institute reopened there in 2003 after leaving the Kennedy Center. 

Arlington officials are also arranging a meeting, said Terry Holzhei­mer, the county’s economic development chief, and might have a head start because Corcoran management considered taking over the space made available when the Newseum relocated to the District from Rosslyn.

Prince George’s County officials are studying museum financing and expect to also make a push for the Corcoran. And there’s always the possibility of finding another location in the city.

The other thing is that suburban institutions, even to some extent the Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, tend to have a narrower audience than institutions located in the center city, in DC and elsewhere.  E.g., I was struck by an article in the Post about a week ago, "Round House Theatre names Ryan Rilette as new leader," which mentioned in passing how the Round House Theatre rarely ever gets a full house.  From the article:

Although Robison kept Round House debt-free and in generally sound fiscal shape, according to trustees President Sally J. Patterson, the company struggles to fill its Bethesda theater. Even on nights on which critics are invited for media performances, usually the evenings that theaters want to pack in playgoers with complimentary tickets, many of the 400 seats remain empty.

“I think the first challenge,” Patterson said, “was someone who would bring us a new sense of energy and vitality around the work itself, to put productions on our Bethesda stage that would energize and excite the greater D.C. theater community and help build our presence in Bethesda.”

And it's not like the Newseum left Arlington because it wanted to be less successful.  It left Arlington to relocate to DC so it could be more successful.  (The Newseum too suffers some problems competing for audience in DC because it charges, like the Corcoran, and competes with many museums that are free.)

Potential exceptions are the Strathmore Music Hall in Grosvenor in Montgomery County, Maryland or Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia.  With the Strathmore, if the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra weren't motivated to have a summer home outside of the Baltimore region--so it can capture dollars from a richer market--it might not have worked.

Where's the money to move a large arts institution to the suburbs anyway?

What the article sort of says is that the Corcoran isn't likely to get near the amount of money they "need" from selling the site to pay for a move to a new purpose built gallery and school.

And it's great that all those Economic Development officials are calling on the Corcoran but they ought to know this.  So unless they have some foundations in their back pocket willing to pony up not a few million, but more than $100 million, a move isn't likely to happen.

A good example in the perils of moving, announcing plans to move, is the "National" Children's Museum, which sold their building on H Street NE (now the block has been developed as apartments and condominiums), and was going to reopen on L'Enfant Plaza, and then decamped to National Harbor, with promise of some $ from the Peterson Companies, and is finally re-opening this fall after 8 years of being closed ("National Children’s Museum (finally!) reopening at National Harbor" from the Post).  Frankly, I'm surprised they're re-opening.

Potential of a merger with George Washington University

Something I think could happen, based strictly on proximity, is a merger of the Corcoran Gallery and its art school, with George Washington University.

Left: rendering of the new GWU museum.

GWU is on a museum kick lately ("One Step Closer to GW Museum," GW Today").  They are creating a local history museum to house the Albert Small collection of items related to DC history and the Textile Museum, currently located in Kalorama, will relocate to the campus ("Textile Museum to join up with GW," Washington Post).

They have that Mount Vernon campus (formerly Mount Vernon College) which is probably underutilized, and they have a fundraising-development infrastructure that is likely to be more significant and successful than the Corcoran's even though GWU isn't known for its fundraising heft, and the school is a large property owner, experience with development--they are the number one non-government property owner in DC.

Expanding the design side of the Corcoran College of Arts and Design to expand GWU's presence in the arts and design field and as a local economic development move

I don't know much about the GWU Arts Department.  Probably the school would do better by having a broader range program by taking over the Corcoran College of Art & Design and setting it up as a separate college within the GWU structure, but at the same time enhancing and expanding the program.

I have been thinking about doing a follow up entry on the DC "economic development" plan and the essentiality of design-design thinking to economic development generally (it's the heart of the creative class argument).  Enabling the Corcoran, in association with GWU, to expand this side of the Arts & Design College would be very exciting.

Examples on how to expand the design side would be the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, or the Rhode Island School of Design.

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