After a leaderless six months, the Corcoran Gallery of Art on Wednesday named British art historian Paul Greenhalgh as director and president of its museum and College of Art and Design.
Mr. Greenhalgh, an expert in 19th and 20th-century decorative arts, will assume his new position in early 2006. He succeeds Corcoran Director David C. Levy, who abruptly resigned in late May. Mr. Levy quit after the museum’s board of trustees postponed the construction of a new wing designed by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry due to insufficient funds.
Financial problems at the Corcoran have left many wondering about the future of the faltering institution. The museum’s deficit for fiscal year 2005 is estimated to be $1.5 million to $1.8 million, according to spokeswoman Liz Bradley.
When asked about the Corcoran’s recent turmoil, Mr. Greenhalgh put a positive spin on the challenges of retooling the privately funded museum. “The Corcoran has a fabulous collection, a stunning beaux-arts building and a school with a good reputation,” he said by phone from the museum on Thursday. “We won’t be denying our roots. We need to consolidate and present our identity in the appropriate manner.”
According to a statement released by the museum, the 50-year-old British scholar was selected for the job based on his experience in both the art and academic worlds. “He has a true passion for and deep understanding of the Corcoran’s two cornerstones — the museum and the college,” said Jeanne Ruesch, chair of the board of trustees.
Since 2001, Mr. Greenhalgh has served as president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. Under his tenure, the Canadian art school grew in size and student enrollment, and changed its name to NSCAD University.
Campus buildings, which had been previously leased, were purchased. The university also acquired a 1930s warehouse, which was renovated into art studios, and a downtown building for a new film program. Mr. Greenhalgh revived the university’s publishing house and launched alumni-run stores and businesses.
Prior to taking that academic post, the British scholar was head of research at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where he also worked as deputy curator of ceramics and glass. While at the V&A, he organized the touring blockbuster exhibition, “Art Nouveau, 1890-1914,” which was shown in Washington at the National Gallery of Art from October 2000 to January 2001.
He also became involved in expansion plans for the London museum before leaving for Canada. Like the Corcoran’s ill-fated Gehry wing, that project, called the Spiral Building, was also cutting-edge in its architecture and eventually abandoned.
As for resuscitating the Gehry addition, Mr. Greenhalgh said, “There is no intention of going forward at this stage.”
Although the newly appointed director offered no specifics about his plans for the museum, he suggested that future shows, like his multimedia art nouveau survey, might combine the fine and applied arts. “I’m interested in the relationship of fine arts to architecture, design and decorative arts,” he said.
Increased corporate and individual donations to the Corcoran over the past few months may make his job easier. They may also help turn the museum’s red ink into black next year. According to Miss Bradley, the Corcoran’s huge deficit is projected to shrink to zero when the next fiscal year ends on June 30, 2006.
In shaping a new identity for the 136-year-old institution, Mr. Greenhalgh said the Corcoran’s College of Art and Design will be an important factor. “What makes us unique is that the relationship between the school and the museum exists,” he said. “I want to give lectures and get involved with the students.” His expertise should particularly benefit the school’s new master’s degree programs in interior design and the history of decorative arts, which were rolled out in 2004.
The new director also plans to continue his scholarly pursuits. Born in Bolton, England, he studied painting and art history at the University of Reading and earned a master’s degree in art history from the University of London’s Courtauld Institute. He taught at Britain’s Royal College of Art and Cardiff Institute, and was head of art history at Camberwell College of Art in London.
Since the late 1980s, he has written seven books on art and design. His latest, “The Modern Ideal: The Rise and Collapse of Idealism in Visual Arts From the Enlightenment to Post Modernism,” was published in October.
Mr. Greenhalgh, who is divorced and the father of two teenage sons, said he is looking forward to living in Washington. “It’s a pretty fab place. Walkable, pretty and full of museums. I can’t think of anything better than that.”