- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

In an effort to boost its public profile, the cash-strapped Corcoran Gallery of Art yesterday announced plans to revamp its “brand” at an early morning press conference.

The most outwardly visible evidence of this identity change will be a new logo, designed by gallery staff.

A lower-case “c” will be emblazoned on banners and signs affixed to the Corcoran’s beaux-arts building on 17th Street, as well as on posters at bus and Metro stops, although a date has yet to be set for implementing this publicity campaign.

Jeanette Ruesch, the newly elected chairwoman of the museum’s board of trustees, called it “the new look of the Corcoran.” Mrs. Ruesch, former CEO of financial services company Ruesch International and widow of former Corcoran board Chairman Otto Ruesch, says the “c” represents qualities associated with the institution, such as “contemporary,” “center of the city” and “cool.”

It might also stand for “crisis.”

On Monday, the Corcoran’s board suspended plans to build a swirling, metal-clad addition designed by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry. The move was made in the face of the gallery’s growing operating deficits and stalled fundraising campaign for the expansion.

Unless one or more donations of $50 million to $100 million are made to help finance the project, the Gehry design will be shelved, said former board Chairman John T. “Til” Hazel, Jr. at yesterday’s press conference. “We have to have the money in hand before we start construction,” said Mr. Hazel. He estimates that the combined costs of the addition and the renovation of the existing building have skyrocketed from $67 million to $200 million.

The decision was followed by the resignation of Corcoran President and Director David C. Levy, which takes effect Monday. Mr. Levy, who masterminded the Gehry project, had held the position since 1991. Mr. Hazel said a search committee is being organized to find a new director, who he hopes will be in place by the end of the year.

Shelving the celebrated Gehry project may be disappointing for architecture buffs, but halting a controversial building addition isn’t a rare occurrence in the museum world. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York scrapped plans to revamp its original building, completed by modern architect Marcel Breuer, with a postmodern expansion by Michael Graves. In 2001, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was appointed architect of the expansion, but he was also let go before a design was unveiled. The Whitney is now proceeding with plans to build a less ambitious addition by Italian architect Renzo Piano.

In London, the Victoria and Albert Museum canceled an angular addition by Daniel Libeskind, architect of the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site.

Rethinking the Gehry project presents the opportunity to refocus the Corcoran, which has suffered declining visitor attendance and lagging donations in recent years.

“Our core mission will be re-examined,” said Mr. Hazel, who is determined that the museum’s board set the agenda and “become aggressively involved on a much more frequent basis than in the past.”

In presenting a plan for the next three months, Mrs. Ruesch said efforts will be concentrated on balancing the 2006 operating budget. June is planned to be a “month of listening” when opinions are solicited from staff, donors and docents as to future directions.

The Corcoran will seek permission to redirect monies pledged for the Gehry wing to repair and renovate the existing Corcoran building, designed by New York architect Ernest Flagg and opened in 1897. Those repairs are estimated to cost $35 to $40 million, according to Mr. Hazel, and will be undertaken by the Smith Group, the District architectural firm that has been collaborating with Mr. Gehry.

Development proposals are also being reviewed for renovating the Randall School in Southwest, purchased by the gallery for $6.2 million last year, into interim space for the Corcoran College of Art and Design while the 17th Street building is being rehabbed. “It will give us the opportunity to build 80,000 square feet that will be available to the school,” said Mr. Hazel. The school will be eventually used for community-based art programs.

In the meantime, chief curator Jackie Serwer is tightening the Corcoran’s exhibition schedule. “We’ve probably been doing too many exhibits,” Ms. Serwer admitted yesterday. “We want to roll back a little bit and get a little more bang for our buck in all the exhibits that we do.”

In doing so, Ms. Serwer is organizing an Andy Warhol exhibit in collaboration with the Pittsburgh-based Warhol Museum that will open in September. A Warhol exhibit held at the Corcoran in 2000 proved to be one of the gallery’s most popular. A retrospective devoted to District artist Sam Gilliam will open in October.

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