- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

This week’s decision by the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Board of Trustees to shelve its Frank Gehry-designed addition was no surprise. Drumming up enough funds to pay for the ambitious Gehry addition — estimated to cost about $180 million — hardly seemed likely, especially after September 11 and the dot-com collapse dried up the springs of cultural philanthropy.

Now the Corcoran trustees face the tough task of finding ways to shore up the financially troubled institution and attract visitors to the aging beaux-arts building on 17th Street. They should start by dropping the pretense that the expensive Gehry project eventually will be constructed.

Then the board should concentrate on solving the real problem confronting the institution.

The Corcoran is suffering an identity crisis.

Visitors flock to other Washington art museums with a clear understanding of what those institutions have to offer. They know the Phillips Collection houses impressionist paintings in an intimate setting, the Renwick Gallery specializes in crafts, the National Gallery is filled with old masters.

The Corcoran lacks such curatorial definition. Its core collection of 19th-century American art is displayed in a grand old building, but so are those of the Smithsonian’s larger American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

The 17th Street museum frequently shows contemporary works, but so does the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

One of the Corcoran’s distinctions — and one of its difficulties — is that it is the oldest and largest private, admission-charging museum in a city filled with free public institutions. It must compete with larger entities for funds from the same individuals, foundations and corporations that have become hesitant to bankroll culture, given their own dwindling portfolios and profits. That makes the need for a clear identity at the Corcoran even more important.

Corcoran President and Director David C. Levy, who resigned effective Monday, intended for the Gehry addition to do that. Its exciting, undulating architecture, Mr. Levy figured, would create a new, more visible profile. He hoped to repeat the “Bilbao effect,” attracting throngs of art and architecture lovers to the Washington institution just as Mr. Gehry’s titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum has done in the Basque city.

But well-mannered, museum-filled Washington is not gritty Bilbao, a former steel town with few established cultural institutions. The idea of relying on a new wing squeezed between two buildings, hardly on the scale of Mr. Gehry’s free-standing Guggenheim, to create a revenue-generating magnet always seemed dubious.

Creating a tourist destination through attention-grabbing architecture is a strategy many museums embraced in the 1990s, but one that has proved costly and untenable. The Milwaukee Art Museum managed to build a soaring structure by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava but was nearly ruined financially in the process.

Other museums, fearing the same fate, proceeded to nip their blockbuster building projects in the bud. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London nixed an addition designed by Daniel Libeskind, architect of the now troubled Freedom Tower on the World Trade Center site. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art canceled a scheme by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who also was let go by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, to revamp its multibuilding campus.

Even the ever-expanding Guggenheim shelved its plans for another Gehry-created museum in Lower Manhattan.

Unburdening the Corcoran from the overblown Gehry design, which already looks like a 20th-century relic, makes financial sense. It offers the chance to renovate the long-neglected beaux-arts building and construct a less expensive, more groundbreaking addition with profitable uses such as residential and commercial spaces. A new wing with space for apartments, perhaps modeled after the Museum of Modern Art Tower in New York, would generate revenue and add life to the New York Avenue block.

As the Corcoran’s trustees look for ways to redefine the 136-year-old institution, they might well consider returning to founder William Wilson Corcoran’s desire to “encourage the American genius.” Supporting that vision should start with embracing the old gray building and academic collection as assets, not embarrassments.

For too long, the Corcoran has obscured its heritage with too many temporary shows devoted to unrelated subjects. Chief curator Jackie Serwer admitted this week that the exhibition calendar had been too crowded, and “a little more bang for our buck” is needed. Some recent shows, such as the vacuous retrospective devoted to J. Seward Johnson, hurt the museum’s credibility.

Many of the best works in the permanent collection — sweeping landscapes by Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, for example — are buried at the back of the museum in dingy galleries. Others, including sculptures and photographs by contemporary American artists, aren’t even on view. These holdings deserve to be moved front and center as emblems of the Corcoran.

The museum also must develop ways of interpreting this collection to excite people about “uncool” objects from the past, such as a Winslow Homer watercolor or a Paul Revere teapot. A show devoted to beaux-arts architecture would help illuminate the merits of the 1897 museum building, especially after its galleries are restored.

Exhibits devoted to the nation’s emerging artistic talents, including a refocused biennial show, also would reinforce the message that the Corcoran is a repository for cutting-edge as well as classic American art. That would differentiate it from the Smithsonian’s more sober museums of American art.

As part of this return to its roots, the Corcoran could capitalize on its location and forge closer ties to Washington. Now that the City Museum has closed, the District needs another institution to showcase its rich history. The Corcoran already provides art classes and mentoring for District schoolchildren through its ArtReach programs. This community connection could be strengthened through new museum initiatives.

Waiting to build a new Corcoran wing also may benefit the city. The Whitney Museum proved that this week when it got the go-ahead from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to proceed with an expansion designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The nine-story addition preserves a row of brownstones while putting a sleek new face on the Whitney’s brutalist-style concrete home.

This project follows two decades of failed attempts by the Whitney to add on to its 1966 building. A 1980s design by Princeton postmodernist Michael Graves and a 2001 proposal by Mr. Koolhaas were abandoned when they proved too controversial and ambitious.

Corcoran watchers and worriers, be patient. Washington may have lost the opportunity for a Gehry original this week, but it has the chance to gain a stronger, more memorable institution in the future.

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