Museum swapshop in Washington

February 20 2014

Image of Museum swapshop in Washington

Picture: Wikipedia

Here's a surprise, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, one of America's finest, will be taken over by the US National Gallery of Art. The collection will be broken up, with perhaps as much as half of it (which is primarily 19th Century art) being distributed around the rest of the country. More here in the Washington Post, and here in the New York Times, which reports:

“This arrangement turns two great collections into one extraordinary collection,” said Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery. “The Corcoran will still have its own identity: a great facility with a distinguished building. It’s a way of keeping the Corcoran memory alive.”

If the plan is approved by the boards in April, it will put an end to years of money trouble for the Corcoran, which had some 103,000 visitors last year. The Corcoran currently runs a $2,071,129 deficit, has $2,787,690 of bank debt and an endowment that has shrunk over the last decade to only $18 million. It also has a $44 million acquisitions fund. Unlike the National Gallery, which does not charge for admissions, the Corcoran is one of the few museums in Washington that does ($10 for adults), a practice that has hampered its ability to attract a strong visitorship. If the plan is implemented, all exhibitions in its original home will be free to the public.

Over the years, the Corcoran has pursued a number of efforts to shore up its finances, including the sale of real estate. In 2010, it sold the Randall School, a former public school in Southwest Washington, where it once planned to relocate the college, for $6.5 million to the Miami collectors Donald and Mera Rubell and the developer Telesis. It also tried to sell the college’s current building in Georgetown, but the deal fell through. Last year, it announced the possibility of relocating from its historic building on 17th Street, but after a hailstorm of criticism its board changed its mind, saying the museum would stay put and look for other options. In June, the museum auctioned a group of Oriental carpets at Sotheby’s, which gave the Corcoran about $39 million, which went into its acquisitions fund.

The story seems almost hard to believe - that in the US, land of mega-charitable giving to the arts, such a fine museum would effectively give up and vanish.

Update - a reader with his ear to the ground sends this helpful summary of events:

Apparently, the Corcoran deal is largely about real estate, like so many London deals.  Their landmark building needed 100 million in repairs in addition to the endowment needing a major top up.  It was a situation which needed work a decade ago.  It wasn't principally about the art collection, which we view as paramount.

University of Maryland, a "red brick university" in UK terms located in an undesirable suburb, was negotiating to take over the Corcoran school to enhance its own offerings when GW University, already well endowed and a Corcoran neighbor in central DC stepped in to acquire the school and the two DC trophy properties which it wanted despite their needing major renovations which it can afford.  They offloaded the art to the National Gallery which will keep some, exhibit some in the Corcoran building which will mostly become a Contemporary art exhibition space and give the remainder to other museums.  

The school wasn't viable and the trustees were generous six figure contributors but it needed more than a hundred million quickly, a major endowment, a new direction and a refurbished image.  It didn't have a plan for the future that would make it sustainable and attract donors.

The Met Museum in NYC is great at selecting the right trustees, rotating trustees when they are less useful, and making brilliant choices of directors who are scholars with vision and are socially appealing.  This attracts donors and builds the Museum.  It all comes to management.  Management attracts assets, both art and funding.  This also is true in the dealer world.

The Barnes is a parallel, where the alleged purpose was a suburban school for art appreciation with a teaching collection with the government requiring some public access in exchange for its charitable status.  I lived a block away for three years when I was young and could just walk in because I knew the director, but the public was limited to two hundred visitors per day three then later four days a week with minimal parking and access.. The trustees let the endowment dwindle and squandered a lot of it fighting with its neighbors and the deMazia trust (another story).  No one would contribute with the trustees required by the Barnes will running things, but 100 million USD flowed in rapidly when it became a museum in town and open with normal hours and new trustees.

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