The Corcoran Gallery Of Art in Washington D.C. is widely regarded as one of the world's great collections of art. What is less well known is the up-hill struggle the Corcoran has to keep its doors open these days.
Founded in 1869 as a private art gallery its mission was to encourage American genius in art. By that measure it has been wildly successful, at least in its early days, but with a strategy so nebulous it was bound to have difficulties once more finely focussed (and state supported) institutions opened their doors starting with The National Gallery Of Art in 1937.
In this light public perceptions are hugely important, and for many years substantial private donations kept the Corcoran's coffers awash with sufficient cash reserves to enable them to initiate the planning for a Frank Gehry designed new wing estimated to cost $115 million. By 2001 it was reported that they had raised $60 million, yet 2005 the project was cancelled due to lack of funds.
Now in 2007 the Corcoran spends $2 million to stage a huge exhibition called "Modernism", attracts 60,000 less patrons than the 2002 exhibition "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years" and appears to have lost as much as $500,000 yet the Corcoran leadership describes Modernism as a "smash success". Huh?
It is not as if wealthy philanthropist's are making up the shortfall. Private donations appear to have fallen precipitously in recent years. Large donations, defined as donations greater than 1.7 million dollars contributed $21.7 million between 1999 and 2002 according to Corcoran IRS filings, yet the period immediately following, ending in 2004 saw only $1.95 million in large donations.
No wonder the Gehry wing was canned and there are rumors of potential staff lay-offs. Far from building a new wing, the Corcoran appears to be finding it difficult to maintain its existing Frank Lloyd-Wright designed building.
The reasons for a great institution like the Corcoran to find itself in such difficulties are many and complex, starting with a museum philosophy best suited to 19th century American culture, however it should never be forgotten just how important it is for a privately funded museum to maintain a certain revered place in public perceptions, which brings me to Robert Mapplethorpe, and a decision by the then Corcoran Director Christina Orr-Cahill that was controversial at the time, and a watershed for perceptions of the Corcoran within the arts community.
Robert Mapplethorpe was a brilliant photographer in the mold of Edward Weston. His portraits are remarkable, but it is his homo-erotic wiorks which incense the conservative side of American politics. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina lead the charge attacking the Mapplethorpe exhibition about to open at the Corcoran in 1989. Orr-Cahill bowed to immense political pressure and cancelled the show. The D.C. arts community retaliated by staging a night-time slide show of Mapplethorpe's work, including his most provocative works, projected onto the exterior of the Corcoran.
The Washington Project For The Arts launched itself into fame (and infamy) by offering to stage the exhibition which became sensationally successful. The Corcoran meanwhile was left with its reputation for supporting American genius severely tarnished.
It is foolish to ascribe the Corcoran's current difficulties to an event like this, however it is equally foolish to ignore the role of public perceptions in fundraising for a museum such as the Corcoran, and the Mapplethorpe fiasco should not be forgotten by those planning the future course of this great museum.
Modernism as an exhibition failed to compete with photographs and memorabilia of a former first lady for the simple reason that it failed to fire the public imagination. Laudable and important it may have been, but realistically, the museum needs the sort of exhibitions that bring controversy and angry senators to re-establish itself at the leading edge of museums seen to be relevant to the modern world. Simply staging an exhibition about Modernism is insufficient on its own. They need another Mapplethorpe and the courage to go ahead with it.