Corcoran Gallery Suffers Cash, Identity Crisis

David Levy, director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has resigned and the museum's board has set aside plans to build a dramatic new wing designed by Frank Gehry. The moves come in the midst of a financial crisis that has raised questions about what kind of place the Corcoran should be.

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The Corcoran Gallery of Art is the oldest art museum in the nation's capital. It has a distinguished collection of American works from the 19th century. The Corcoran made news in 1999 when it announced plans to build a new addition by architect Frank Gehry. Well, the Corcoran has made news again with the announcement that it will not build the Gehry addition for now, and that its executive director has resigned. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY reporting:

At a press conference today in the museum's stately gray-paneled theater, chief curator Jacquelyn Serwer ran through an impressive list of the Corcoran's firsts.

Ms. JACQUELYN SERWER (Chief Curator, Corcoran Gallery of Art): We were the first art museum in Washington, the first US biennial, the first docent training program, and I could go on. The list is very long.

ULABY: In 1989, the Corcoran drew unwanted national attention when its then director canceled an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's explicitly homoerotic photographs after congressional uproar. David Levy took over in the wake of the controversy.

Mr. DAVID LEVY (Director, Corcoran Gallery of Art): The Corcoran was in a shambles, no money. The place was completely broke. And basically, I would say that we, together in the 14 years of my tenure, rebuilt that institution.

ULABY: But that apparently was not enough. The Corcoran's majestic Beaux-Arts building across the street from the White House is beginning to show its age.

Mr. LEVY: It is in very, very bad repair. It's never really been renovated in 108 years.

ULABY: But before beginning much-needed repairs, the Corcoran embarked on a flashy new addition intended to raise its profile and lure tourists and their money. Jeanette Ruesch chairs the Corcoran's board of trustees which, she says, was united behind the new wing.

Ms. JEANETTE RUESCH (Chair, Corcoran Gallery of Art Board of Trustees): There wasn't conflict about Frank Gehry or his addition. In fact, it created an enormous amount of excitement.

ULABY: Ruesch says in the face of the Corcoran's other problems, the Gehry wing became too much of a focus. David Levy.

Mr. LEVY: This is about money. Everybody, if they had the money, would build that building in seconds.

ULABY: The problem was, they weren't able to raise enough money. Levy wanted to continue. The board wanted to put the expansion off, so Levy resigned. Traditionally, it's the job of a board to raise money. John Hazel is the board's vice chairman.

Mr. JOHN HAZEL (Vice Chair, Corcoran Gallery of Art Board of Trustees): I'm not sure what the board could have done more than it did. It didn't work as well as I would have liked, and I think all of us have some culpability.

ULABY: The projected price of the addition shot from around 140 to $200 million. There's still a lot of museum building going on around the country, according to Mimi Gaudieri. She's executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors. But she says a frequent downside to all that construction is something she calls new-building syndrome.

Ms. MIMI GAUDIERI (Executive Director, Association of Art Museum Directors): Where a building has resulted in the departure of the director because there are expectations that perhaps are not met in terms of attendance, in terms of increased funding. And the director is the one responsible.

ULABY: Gaudieri says 21 museums in her association are now looking for new directors. Many of them, she says, are nationally known institutions. But all of them will be looking for a director whose talents are not limited to a knowledge of art.

Ms. GAUDIERI: They will be doing a lot of fund raising.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News, Washington.

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