- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

There was big news at the end of 2003 for Washington museums: With the recovering U.S. economy — the gross domestic product continues to grow at the fastest rate in 20 years — museums may gradually shed their current financial woes and put on more, and better, art exhibits. As contributions from foundations and wealthy donors shrunk drastically over the past three years with the stock market’s downturn, museums found it difficult to carry on their usual programs.

Directors and curators are rejoicing about the chance for recovery — but with reservations.

Officers at the Corcoran Gallery of Art are optimistic. Jacquelyn Serwer, the Corcoran’s chief curator, says, “We’re already feeling an upsurge in the air because the financial picture in this country is improving.”

David C. Levy, Corcoran president and director, adds, “If an upswing happens, I hope it happens quickly. Most nonprofits have been struggling. It’s been a very tough environment. The last three to four years have been awful with the stock market plummeting.”

Despite monetary cutbacks by foundations and rich contributors, the Corcoran mounted three exceptional exhibits last year. One, “Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, the Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson Jr.,” shows that French impressionist paintings can, literally, take on new dimensions when sculptor Johnson turns them into 3-D tableaux. It drew 250,000 visitors, and there will be more before it closes tomorrow.

Another exhibit, “Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction,” which is local sculptor Jim Sanborn’s poetic evocation of 1940s atomic weapons experimentation at Los Alamos, N.M., drew sizable audiences. Also popular was “The Impressionist Tradition in America.” Mr. Levy says it was a highly cost-effective exhibit as it drew from the gallery’s permanent collection and only required painting the exhibit’s gallery walls.

Nevertheless, Mr. Levy says, the Johnson show cost more than $100,000 because of its complicated installation. Expenditures for the Sanborn exhibit totaled $75,000, also because of installation costs.

Ned Rifkin, director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is more cautious about the future.

“It’s too soon to tell whether the upswing will stabilize,” he says. “We have the advantage of a wonderful collection and location and congressional support, but the war in Iraq has caused a serious deficit for the government. We’re wary. We have to be more smart and strategic than ever before in what we do now.”

Mr. Rifkin figured out a cost-effective way to meet any gaps in his budget by rearranging the entire museum into some 40 installations of 350 objects ranging from art of the 19th century to that of today. Calling it “Gyroscope,” the Hirshhorn director says he wanted to introduce visitors to “new ways of looking at modern and contemporary art.”

“It’s an ongoing way of beginning to celebrate 2004, our 30th-anniversary year,” he says. “We found it so beneficial to show the public the depth of our collection that we’re keeping up at least two-thirds of it through next year.”

Among the let’s-wait-and-see group is Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art. He says, “It’s too early to tell” and adds an emphatic, “No further comment.” He has put on first-class exhibits such as “The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre,” “The Art of Romare Bearden” and “Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1783-1853,” but he showed no blockbusters such as the “Johannes Vermeer” of 1995 to 1996.

However, Julian Raby, director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art and the Freer Gallery of Art, and Judy L. Larson, head of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, wholeheartedly join the optimistic ranks at the Corcoran.

“As director of the Freer and Sackler galleries, the national museum of Asian art, I felt we had to show leadership when other museums are either closing galleries for redevelopment or don’t have the discretionary funds to host international exhibitions,” Mr. Raby says.

“We greatly expanded our programs in 2004,” he says. “For example, we’re hosting what will probably be the blockbuster of 2004 in the nation’s capital, ‘Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries,’ a $1 million exhibition. They’re spiritual, transcendental objects.”

In 1996, workers near the city of Qingzhou, south of Beijing, unexpectedly found a cache of nearly 400 sixth-century Buddhist stone sculptures, Mr. Raby says.

“I felt Americans had to see them,” he says. “With adventurous and unique exhibits such as this, donors will respond to our leadership.”

Last year, Mr. Raby mounted the extraordinary “Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure.” The Sackler had to spend $600,000 in exhibit design costs, although “Himalayas” originated at the Art Institute of Chicago. The museum also put on “Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics,” the first exhibit devoted to Mr. Noguchi’s work in clay.

The financial situation is different now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts from when Miss Larson arrived a year ago. She says more money has begun to come in.

Not so with last year’s “An Imperial Collection: Women Artists From the State Hermitage Museum.” “It was our big show of the season, but September 11 and killings by the snipers kept people from going downtown. We also had to scramble for parts of the total costs and get hotel rooms donated for the VIPs and couriers transporting the art,” she says.

Miss Larson points out that “Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business” was funded generously by Hecht’s. “They pride themselves on catering to businesswomen,” she says. The director is also optimistic about the funding of the big show of 2005, “Alice Neel’s Women.” The subject she calls “one of America’s great portrait artists.”

The Museum of Women in the Arts reflects the upswing — cautionary, to be sure — of sanguine thinking among several of the museums in this city. Hopefully, their optimism will be confirmed. With a $1 million show planned at the Sackler, this seems likely.

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