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Troubled gallery may scuttle plans for wing

May 21, 2005|Bob Thompson and Jacqueline Trescott | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The Corcoran Gallery of Art's chairman says the 136-year-old institution is in such serious financial straits that it should suspend efforts to build its much-heralded new wing, for which architect Frank Gehry has already completed a design, and replace its longtime director.

The suspension of the Gehry effort could come as early as Monday, when the board is scheduled to discuss a new strategic plan for the Corcoran.

"In the foreseeable future, there's no choice," board of trustees Chairman John T. Hazel said Thursday, citing broad financial difficulties facing the Washington landmark, which includes both the museum and the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

Hazel said he and fellow trustee Paul Corddry approached President and Director David C. Levy earlier this week and suggested he offer his resignation.

Levy declined. The heart of the disagreement, Levy said, was that "I believe this city and region can support the campaign to get that building built, and they don't." He said Hazel and Corddry had approached him "without full consultation of the board leadership."

But Levy, who has led the Corcoran since 1991, also said he would step aside if a bitter fight developed over his leadership.

"I'm not going to be a spoiler," he said. "I have too much respect for this institution."

The Corcoran announced its plan for the Gehry wing with great fanfare in June 1999. It was a bold stroke for a museum with a severe identity problem, and one that faced tremendous competition from larger, better-funded public entities such as the National Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution.

The hope was that adding a wing by the celebrated Gehry -- whose undulating, titanium-skinned Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, had grabbed so much attention that people began referring to "the Bilbao effect" -- would turn the old, gray Corcoran, with its small but choice collection of primarily 19th century American art, into a must-see destination. It would raise the museum's visibility and attendance while doubling, Levy said, as "maybe the greatest piece we have in our collection."

Six years later, the Gehry dream shows little sign of becoming reality. Fundraising has stalled. A $40-million pledge from Washington, D.C., last July was expected to spur other contributions. So far, it hasn't.

Close to $95 million has been pledged for the Campaign for the Corcoran (which includes elements other than construction of the Gehry wing). Almost half of that, however, is contingent on the construction of the wing being either launched or completed (including Washington's $40 million). So far, $17 million has been spent on construction plans (with the bulk of that going to Gehry) and $5 million more on fundraising costs. Meanwhile, Hazel said, building cost estimates have risen from an unrealistic $60 million to $200 million.

In large part, Levy and Hazel agree, the Corcoran has been victimized by what Levy called "a serious run of bad luck."

First, the economic bubble burst. Two important early contributions to the Campaign for the Corcoran came from AOL executives Robert W. Pittman and Barry M. Schuler, who jointly pledged $30 million in February 2001. The Corcoran has received only $2 million of Schuler's $15-million pledge and doesn't expect to get more. More importantly, hopes have dimmed for additional large contributions from other entrepreneurs.

Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Those hurt all Washington museums, but the Corcoran, being across the street from the White House, was particularly affected. Among other things, tour buses are no longer allowed near the museum.

In May 2003, the Corcoran board elected a new chairman, Otto Ruesch, who shortly thereafter was found to have pancreatic cancer. Ruesch died in October 2004. Hazel, who had been his vice chairman, blames himself for not doing more during this period; he said he was aware that the Corcoran was in serious financial trouble but was reluctant to intervene.

When he became board chairman himself, however, Hazel, who made his fortune as a northern Virginia developer, learned that the Corcoran's problems went beyond bad luck. Among the categories of concern he cited were: operating deficits, fundraising for the Gehry wing, repairs on the existing building and erosion of the donor base.

Hazel and the trustees appointed four task forces, made up largely of members of the museum's and the college's separate boards of overseers, to consider the Corcoran's future. He also recruited Corddry, a retired businessman who Hazel knew had experience with organizations in trouble, to revitalize what had been "a defunct strategic planning committee."

On Monday, the task forces reported their findings to that committee. Next Monday, the committee will submit its recommendations about a new strategic plan to the full board. It is at that meeting that the fate of the Gehry wing, and perhaps that of Levy, will be addressed.

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