- - Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sometime, somehow, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its College of Art & Design may be relocating to somewhere. That was the gist of the 115-year-old institution’s announcement last month, and that was still the situation Thursday.

If that sounds more like the collective wishful thinking of the gallery’s board rather than a decision, it’s because, well, there is no decision. Yet.

The museum in the landmark Beaux Arts building at New York Avenue and 17th Street Northwest is in the red, has space to show only about 3 percent of its permanent collection of 16,000 art works (including its significant collection of American art), and wants to expand its art college facilities to take in more students.

“The board of trustees has not decided to sell the building,” Corcoran Gallery spokeswoman Mimi Carter said Thursday in an email. “The board decided to assess the value of the building, determine whether there are financial incentives from local municipalities, and assess the fundraising climate.”

To test the market, the museum gave real estate agents interested in representing the Corcoran in either the possible sale of its current building or purchase of a new site until Friday to submit bids. Given the Corcoran’s financial picture, any purchase would seem to depend on an eventual sale.

Plans for an extension designed by architect Frank Gehry aimed at solving the space situation ( for which Mr. Gehry was paid $17 million) were abandoned when it became clear that the total cost could not be met from a fund started for the purpose.

But the Corcoran has had money worries for years, and the 2008 economic downturn didn’t improve matters. For example, annual contributions have dropped since 2008 from between $6 million and $8 million to between $3 million to $5 million last year, according to the gallery’s financial statement. Attendance has also dropped — to a projected 68,000 in 2012.

Unlike the Smithsonian Institution or the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran receives no congressional help and minimal support ($300,000) from other agencies; but it is not unique in this. Some other Washington museums, such as the Phillips Collection, are in the same situation of having to raise their own finances.

The Corcoran’s fiscal 2012 operating deficit is $7 million, but this was offset by the first installment from the sale of the lease of the parking lot to the commercial real estate firm of Carr Properties for $20.5 million.

The looming problem, however, is an estimated $130 million in renovation costs the Corcoran says would be needed to bring the venerable building to “the standard of other area museums.”

In June, the Corcoran held a public hearing to get reaction to a possible relocation. Gallery President Fred Bollerer told the 100 or so people who attended that their views would be “input for the trustees” to help make a decision.

Further public hearings are scheduled for Aug. 2 and 25, Ms. Carter says, “with agendas to be announced soon.” The Aug. 2 meeting “will be focused on the museum, the latter will be focused on the college.”

In local museum circles, the Corcoran’s dilemma is seen as a conflict of differing priorities: its historic ties to the building on the one hand, and the importance of the collection itself on the other, particularly its impressive array of American artists that includes John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, Albert Bierstadt and John George Brown.

A “Save the Corcoran Coalition” on the website www.change.org inextricably links the collection to the building, and is collecting electronic signatures “to halt this misguided effort to sell the Corcoran.” The website had registered 1,996 signatures by Thursday — somewhat far from its objective of 10,000. But at the public meeting last month one person urged museum officials, “Don’t get hung up on the building,” the priority should be finding the best environment for the collection.

One museum official observed recently that, in reality, the Corcoran suffers from its location somewhat outside Washington’s tourist flow. The gallery shares 17th Street with the headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Organization of American States building on one side, and the White House security barriers on the other — far away from the city’s museum district.

Whether, in the end, the Corcoran board’s public agonizing over the museum’s future is the best way to decide on a major move remains a debatable point.

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