Corcoran shelves Gehry extension; director and two trustees resign
David C. Levy believes the new building would have revitalised the institution and brought back visitors
By Jason Edward Kaufman
WASHINGTON, DC. David C. Levy, the president and director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art and Design, has resigned after the board of trustees voted, against his wishes, to abandon a long-planned expansion designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry.
Mr Levy believed that the proposed new metallic wing would revitalise the institution by attracting hordes of visitors and said it would become a landmark in the nationâ€™s capital. But fundraising for the $170 million project foundered at around $94 million (including a $40 million contribution from the city), groundbreaking was repeatedly postponed and galleries originally scheduled to be closed for construction remained empty of visitors.
Board chairman John T. â€œTilâ€ Hazel, a Virginia real estate developer, and strategic planning committee head Paul Corddry, a retired Heinz Corp. executive, criticised Mr Levy for focusing on the faltering expansion at the expense of the museumâ€™s programme. Mr Levy, 67, who said some trustees had voted for him to stay, also said he did not wish to divide the board and the institution that he had served for 14 years.
Members of the staff expressed relief that a period of conflict and uncertainty would soon be coming to an end, but trustee Robert B. Millard, managing director of Lehman Brothers investment bank, also resigned in protest, and trustee Rob Truland, an electrical contractor, stepped down citing â€œother reasonsâ€. Olga Hirshhorn, widow of Hirshhorn Museum founder Joseph Hirshhorn and a longtime patron of the Corcoran, has also withdrawn a gift of hundreds of works she had planned to give the museum along with one third of her residuary estate. The board itself shuffled its leadership, electing Jeanette Ruesch chairman and making Mr Hazel vice-chairman. Ms Ruesch, widow of the Corcoran former chairman Otto Ruesch and a retired executive from the financial services company Ruesch International, will serve as de facto director as the institution searches for a replacement for Mr Levy.
With the directorâ€™s departure, Ms Ruesch says the board is â€œrearranging its prioritiesâ€ and will focus on increasing the endowment of $14 million, renovating the existing Beaux-Arts building (projected to cost up to $45 million), and rethinking the exhibition programme. She says the board will ask donors for permission to redirect their expansion pledges to the renovation.
Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Mr Levy said, â€œItâ€™s all about having the right people on the board and weâ€™ve had some terrible bad luck. In 2000 we had a fabulous board with the darlings of American industryâ€, citing Mr Millard and developer Howard Milstein. Time Warner co-chief operating officer Bob Pittman, and AOL president Barry Shuler led the Gehry project with a joint pledge of $30 million. When the internet bubble economy burst, both lost their jobs and left the board. Mr Shuler has since defaulted on most of his pledge.
The Corcoran then refocused its fundraising within the community and former chairman Otto Ruesch was to lead the campaign, but he became ill and died last year. â€œBy the time Til Hazel took over the campaign, the forward momentum had stalledâ€, says Mr Levy, noting that chairman Ruesch and his predecessor Ron Abramson each donated sums of up to $3 million, but not the large lead gifts needed to propel the campaign forward.
The board has begun a strategic planning process to re-examine the Corcoranâ€™s mission and identity, and held a press conference last month to introduce a new logoâ€”a white lowercase câ€™ against a blue backgroundâ€”intended to convey the museum as â€œcool, classic and contemporaryâ€.
One newspaper wryly suggested it might also stand for â€œcrisisâ€ which was precisely the Corcoranâ€™s situation when Mr Levy arrived in 1991. The museum had become an art world pariah for having bowed to pressure from Congress for cancelling a controversial 1989 exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Mr Levy resuscitated the museum with popular shows and new programmes. The annual budget rose from $8 million to $20 million as attendance jumped from 250,000 in 1999 to 600,000 in 2000 after the Gehry project was announced. After 11 September 2001, however, increased security restrictions in Washington, DC, especially around the White House, led to a dramatic drop in attendance at the nearby Corcoran. Attendance is expected to be around 200,000 this year. The institution is also chronically short of funds.
The Corcoran Gallery and College have amassed only $14 million in their joint restricted endowment, and recently disclosed deficits for 17 of the last 20 years. Mr Levy says the Corcoran also has unrestricted funds of â€œaround $5 to $6 millionâ€â€”what remains from the sale of musical instruments which raised more than $17 million for the museum in the 1990s. But the chairman says there was a $1.2 million deficit in the fiscal year that ended 30 June. Mr Levy says there was no deficit last year and none projected for next year, but he acknowledges that he and Mr Hazel disagreed over a business plan.
Some believe that the issue of money-raising has to do with the exhibition programme. Mr Levy has been criticised for mounting low-brow exhibitions, including shows of Jackie Kennedy Onassisâ€™s dresses and Norman Rockwell illustrations.
Mr Levy says that, because the Corcoran cannot afford to host multi-million-dollar shows, the only way to attract visitors to a city filled with museums is to lure them with crowd-pleasers, but the shift in policy made the museum a less attractive venue for travelling shows and led to a loss of prestige and income. The Corcoranâ€™s own shows of Larry Rivers, Francis Criss, Sienese Biccherne, Caio Fonseca and others found few, if any, institutions willing to collaborate or host them.