- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

“Everything here has to change,” admits the director and president of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Paul Greenhalgh.

In a revolutionary spirit akin to that of the artists in the new “Modernism” show, the British-born Mr. Greenhalgh, 51, has spent his first year on the job making a clean sweep through the museum. During an interview in his art-filled office last week, he talked about a new direction for the Corcoran, long beset by an identity crisis and financial woes.

Just two years ago, the museum was planning to build a bold addition by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, estimated to cost about $170 million. After realizing the needed cash couldn’t be raised, the museum’s board of directors suspended the project in 2005. The decision led then-Director David Levy, accused by one board member of running up a $1.2 million deficit, to resign.

“The Gehry addition is dead,” says Mr. Greenhalgh, eager to move on and discuss the first major exhibition at the Corcoran since he assumed his post in April 2006.

“Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939,” opening today, was conceived by the director in the 1990s while he was head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where the exhibit was shown last year. Expected to draw 100,000 visitors by the time it closes in July, the huge show is part of a five-exhibition series that started with “Art Nouveau.” That blockbuster was organized by Mr. Greenhalgh while he was still at the V&A and traveled to the National Gallery of Art in 2000.

Through such exhibits both scholarly and popular, the director hopes to attract a bigger audience and resuscitate the Corcoran’s flagging reputation in the art world. Before his arrival, the museum was criticized for pandering to the public and potential donors with shows lacking artistic merit, such as displays of dresses worn by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and sculptures by J. Seward Johnson Jr., heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune.

Mr. Greenhalgh wants none of that. “What I don’t want to do is debase or compromise art by showing things that aren’t wonderful in themselves,” he says.

One of the first actions he took as director was to rework the previous exhibition schedule, cutting 20 planned shows from the list. “We’re now trying to produce exhibitions of the highest quality, which will start to deliver attendance.” In doing so, the director hopes to change public perceptions that the Corcoran is struggling to keep up with bigger, government-funded institutions.

In recent years, the Corcoran has relied heavily on other museums to supply content, borrowing exhibition after exhibition without any real sense of mission. “That is not true from now on,” Mr. Greenhalgh says. “We’ve added significantly to the size of the modernism show with an American dimension … and have every intention of curating our own shows.”

However, the roster of upcoming exhibitions still reflects offerings from other institutions. Photographs by Annie Leibowitz and Ansel Adams — organized by museums in Brooklyn and Boston — will follow “Modernism” in the fall. Under discussion is a retrospective of sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen originally shown in Turin, Italy, that also may be brought to the museum.

In dreaming up new shows, Corcoran curators will draw from the museum’s great collection of 19th-century American paintings. “We need to exploit what we have,” the director says.

In development is an exhibit of John Singer Sargent’s seascapes with, according to Mr. Greenhalgh, a show devoted to Albert Bierstadt’s Western landscapes perhaps in the offing. An exhibition of photographer Richard Avedon’s political portraits, he says, is being planned for 2008 to coincide with the presidential election. Also on the horizon is a post-1960s sequel to “Modernism” devoted to postmodernism.

Mr. Greenhalgh hopes such serious exhibitions will earn respect and increase attendance. Drawing tourists to its off-the-Mall location, however, is not an easy task for the Corcoran, a privately financed institution in a city of publicly funded museums.

“We have to be strategic about what we charge in the sense that the other museums are free,” the director says. “How much doesn’t feel like much? I don’t know what that final number is. We’re charging $14 for ‘Modernism,’ and I think that’s fair.”

Another asset he hopes to expand is the Corcoran College of Art and Design. “We are planning to increase the number of students from 500 to 900 or 1,000 with an emphasis on master’s degree programs,” he says. A new building for the college, the Randall School in Southwest, was purchased for $6.2 million last November from the D.C. government. Now being renovated by Washington architect Shalom Baranes, it is due to be completed in 2011.

Mr. Greenhalgh also is trying to integrate the school into the museum. Instead of hiring outside exhibition designers, he tapped faculty and more than 50 students to help put up the “Modernism” show and, in doing so, cut costs. Museum curators, in turn, are teaching in the college, including a course on late-19th-century decorative arts given by the director. “We have every intention of creating a seamless institution,” he promises.

Belt tightening continues under the museum’s new chief financial officer, Chris Leahy, who left the Phillips Collection to join the Corcoran last summer. Salary savings due to staff vacancies, a new three-year budgeting cycle and increased donations led to a small financial surplus of about $70,000 last year, Mr. Greenhalgh says.

As for expanding in the future, the director says he envisions a sculpture garden built over a parking garage next to the museum on New York Avenue Northwest. “But our first priority is to lovingly restore the [old] building,” he says, pointing to new doors at the 17th Street entrance, cleaned columns in the atrium and a newly gilded grill above the rotunda. “By taking the offices out of the galleries,” he adds, “we will be able to add 25 to 30 percent more exhibition space.”

The director remains optimistic that the Corcoran can become a stronger, more focused institution, but he admits that won’t happen overnight. “My instincts say it will take five years to get all our facility up and running, to restore the building, to turn it around.” Stay tuned.

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