Credit: Kyle T. Webster

The way Paul Greenhalgh tells it, “Modernism” was a smash.

“We’re extremely pleased with it internally,” says the director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, speaking about the museum’s massive spring exhibition, “Modernism: Designing a New World 1914n1939.” “We see it as a huge success for the Corcoran.” The exhibition, which closed in late July, aspired to show the long reach of the art movement, with objects ranging from a trim Marianne Brandt teapot to an entire prefab ’20s Frankfurt Kitchen. “We very much saw ‘Modernism’ as a means of transformation for us, as a way of figuring out how we can relate to the community, how we talk to our colleagues,” Greenhalgh says.

The Corcoran went all in on “Modernism.” Greenhalgh, who came to the Corcoran in 2006, staged the same exhibition while he was director at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and it filled nearly all of the Corcoran’s 26 galleries. It was a much bigger show than the temporary exhibitions the museum has staged in recent years, and with a price tag of $2 million, it cost more than double previous exhibitions. But the museum wanted a big draw. It recently suffered an enormous setback when it failed to attract the necessary funds to build a Frank Gehryndesigned addition that was in the works since 1999, and it pinned its hopes on the sort of blockbuster show that would change the public’s perception of the Corcoran.

Now that the museum has returns on “Modernism,” it can put numbers to that effort. The show drew 93,000 viewers. Even with the increased adult ticket fee of $14 (up from $8) admissions covered only slightly more than half the cost of the show. The 1,800 new memberships generated during the run nudge that number higher, to about $1.4 million; cafe and gift-shop receipts aren’t public knowledge, and the museum says it hasn’t finished auditing final figures, but it’s unlikely they made up the difference.

Greenhalgh would not discuss specifics about the exhibition’s financial returns but says that “Modernism” wasn’t a loser for his museum. “The aim was to record a break-even budget at the end of the year, and we have done that,” he says. “An exhibition like that ricochets off all our budgets. We have done that. We think the exhibition has come in on target.”

If so, Greenhalgh has cleared only one major hurdle. He still faces the same set of problems that the Corcoran has confronted since 1937, with the emergence of the National Gallery of Art: The Corcoran has struggled to establish an independent identity with its smaller but diverse collection. Compounding that core problem are evergreen museum problems like tight budgets and infrastructural issues. Greenhalgh’s managed some of that with staff cuts that have forced the museum to operate with fewer employees. But he must also deal with the Corcoran’s board of trustees—a group that some say has done as much to exacerbate the museum’s problems as it has to solve them.

The Corcoran hit a very public low point in the art world in June 1989, when then director Christina Orr-Cahall bowed to pressure from Sen. Jesse Helms and other culture-warring Republicans and canceled a touring exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. Sixteen years later, the museum faced another public crisis. On May 20, 2005, John “Til” Hazel, then the chair of the Corcoran’s board of trustees, told the Washington Post that the campaign to raise capital for renovation and the Gehry-designed addition should be suspended—and that Orr-Cahall’s replacement, David Levy, had been asked to resign.

Not that the fundraising campaign was suspended—that it ought to be. And he didn’t tell Post reporters Bob Thompson and Jacqueline Trescott that Levy had resigned—only that he and another trustee had asked Levy to resign. But Hazel’s public airing of grievances, as well as Levy’s departure, would come to be seen by some as rock bottom. Among them was Jan Rothschild, former chief communications officer for the museum. “[Levy] brought the museum and the college back from the sheer brink of death. And he did it through sheer force of will,” says Rothschild.

But the Corcoran’s problems weren’t limited to public squabbles about leadership. The museum also had serious financial issues after the stock market bubble burst in the early ’90s. On Feb. 2, 2001, AOL executives Barry Schuler and Robert Pittman announced that they would give a $30 million gift to the Corcoran to fund the proposed new wing. But according to a former Corcoran employee who was familiar with the museum’s finances, the two “gave their gifts in stock. Which amounted to pretty much blip after Sept. 11.” Pledge restrictions stipulated that when the stock price fell below a particular ceiling level, the gift was no longer valid.

The attacks themselves made for a difficult fundraising environment. “We had a pretty good start,” says Rothschild. “We had raised $60 million by 9/11. But with the tech bubble bursting and 9/11, it was much more challenging to try to fund a project like that in Washington.” Also, following the attacks, traffic flow and parking options around the Corcoran were altered and restricted in deference to the White House nearby.

The cost of the addition itself also contributed to its demise. “Construction costs were escalating beyond belief,” says Rothschild. “Internationally, China and others were industrializing the market on steel, and a lot of costs were escalating. Part of the problem was the budget we started with wasn’t the budget it ended up being.” Originally budgeted at $115 million, costs had ballooned to a reported $200 million by 2005. Costs for Gehry’s projects can rise as wildly as the twisted steel façades for which the architect is known. Although the Guggenheim Bilbao—the project that made Gehry a household name—was completed on time and on budget ($100 million in 1997), that wasn’t the case in Los Angeles, where the Walt Disney Concert Hall was to be built with a $50 million gift in 1987 from Disney’s widow, Lillian. By its completion in 2003, it cost $274 million.

Undoubtedly, the greatest factor of the failure of the Gehry campaign was the lack of contributions. The Corcoran’s IRS filings show that between 1999 and 2004, there was a steep drop in large donations. For instance, from 1999 through 2002, donations from individuals that were larger than $1.7 million brought more than $21.7 million into the Corcoran’s coffers. Between 2001 and 2004, however, such multimillion-dollar donations brought in only about $1.95 million. Public support had fallen off in recent years as well, from $7.1 million in fiscal year 2003n04 to close to $4.9 million in fiscal year 2005n06. (Greenhalgh would not comment on financial affairs predating his arrival at the Corcoran. A museum spokesperson attributes the drop-offs to the end of the Gehry campaign.)

“When I had left, the board had about matched the $30 million level of the AOL gift,” says Rothschild. “But I would say that the needs well outstripped the gifts at that time.”

“There were maybe 10 trustees on the board that were financially involved, and the rest were little to no involvement at all,” says the source familiar with the Corcoran’s finances, who asked not to be named. “Not the kind of giving you would anticipate from the board, especially during a capital campaign.”

On May 23, 2005, the same day that Levy resigned from the Corcoran, the museum also pulled the plug on the Gehry addition. “If you don’t have your money, you can’t build it,” Hazel told the Post.

When the Corcoran lost its Gehry addition, the city lost an investment opportunity. According to Stephen Fuller, an economist at George Mason University, the addition didn’t fail for lack of enthusiasm from the D.C. government.

“I was asked to do an economic and fiscal study for the museum as the basis for their going to the city council to get financial support for the expansion,” says Fuller. “Not only the Gehry addition but their renovation and expansion.” Fuller’s report examines the magnitude of the potential windfall for the city, profiling the tax revenue associated with the Corcoran’s projected growth: direct spending and construction spending; one-time tax revenue associated with the construction; and overall increased economic activity, both directly and indirectly tied to the expansion.

Fuller’s report, in short: Frank Gehry was a damned good deal for D.C. The construction alone, his report argued, would pump $206 million into the city’s economy. “I showed what the fiscal impact of the museum would be in its expanded state,” he says. “When the city funds something, when they put $10 million into Arena Stage or $20 million into the Shakespeare Theatre, [those institutions] in fact borrow that money. They pay it back in expected increased tax revenues. So the city wants to know what the expected increased tax revenues would be over the period of this bond, which would be for 20 years.”

Fuller’s report formed the basis for Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ decision, in June 2004, to ask the city council to pass a tax-increment financing (TIF) proposal. The council complied, granting the Corcoran $40 million on the condition that the organization successfully raised the rest of the money for the project.

“The Williams administration understood,” says Fuller, “and [Mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration] continues to understand that [a TIF] is not a gift, this is an investment.”

An investment, but to what tune? “The accumulated increase in tax revenues would have more than doubled the city’s investment,” he says.

More critically for the Corcoran, according to the report, the expansion would have provided the attendance boost the museum needed. The report stated: “While substantial increases are projected for the Gallery’s retail and restaurant sales, the largest gain in economic benefits is associated with the projected growth of the Gallery’s visitor base reflecting its newly gained ‘must see’ status resulting from its unique architectural design and associated visitor following.” Fuller’s report projected a sizable increase in visitor spending after the addition—up 575 percent from 2003 numbers.

In the meantime, the Corcoran pursued other avenues to bolster its status in ways that didn’t involve the Gehry wing. Levy courted Eli Broad, a Los Angelesnbased billionaire philanthropist and art collector, to join the Corcoran board, but though Broad did make a donation, he declined the invitation. The Corcoran also pursued a deal to absorb Chicago’s vaunted but struggling Terra Museum of American Art. Judith Terra, widow of collector Daniel Terra and board member of the Terra Foundation, lives in D.C. and hoped to bring the collection here, but negotiations between the Terra and the Corcoran were frustrated when a legal settlement was reached that prevented that collection from leaving Illinois. In 2004, the Terra collection was absorbed by the Art Institute of Chicago.

Membership is a feather in Greenhalgh’s cap. It’s one of the returns of “Modernism” that he can boast about. With 1,800 new memberships collected during the show’s run, membership fees for 2007 will likely compare well to pre-2004 numbers.

“‘Modernism’ really was about investing in the future of the Corcoran,” says Philip Brookman, director of curatorial affairs at the Corcoran. “By building audience, giving credibility, showing our peers what we can do, what we’re capable of.”

Brookman is forthright about the fact that this show drew smaller audiences than less substantive shows that the museum has staged in the past. “We had a far more diverse audience,” he says, acknowledging that 2002’s “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years,” for example, attracted a crowd specifically interested in Jackie O and Beltway pageantry—153,000 visitors. A Norman Rockwell exhibition in 2004 drew 110,000 visitors. But “Modernism,” Brookman says, drew architects, students, designers, and artists. “Fewer people came—but for us, right now, 93,000 people came. That’s a great audience compared with the last few years.”

To address attendance, Greenhalgh hopes to build on the best recommendations from the Gehry campaign, particularly with regard to the use of space. “Some [of the Corcoran’s] galleries have been given over to other purposes,” says Greenhalgh. “In total at the Corcoran there are 11 galleries that have been turned into alternative use,” such as offices, he says. Greenhalgh intends to turn these spaces back into galleries. He has tentatively suggested replacing the gift shop with a permanent gallery of fast-rotating contemporary art shows—something along the lines of the Hirshhorn’s “Gyroscope” program. “[Reclaiming gallery space] is one of the major things that will allow us to show more of our permanent collection,” says Greenhalgh.

“Part of the argument for the Corcoran,” says Fuller, referring to his pre-Gehry recommendations to the city, “was adding 16 new galleries [so] that people would stay there longer. It would become more of a destination attraction than it is now.” Fuller’s report details that, in 2003, “the average length of visit at the Corcoran was 1.5 hours compared, for example, to 2.4 hours for the National Gallery.”

Retaking former gallery spaces will allow the Corcoran room to display more works ranging from the Clark Collection (Dutch, Flemish, and French paintings) and the Walker Collection (French paintings including Renoir, Monet, Courbet, and Pissarro) to decorative objects and contemporary art. But curating such a wide variety of works from such disparate genres and time periods would seem to require more staff than the Corcoran can offer in the wake of recent attrition and staff cuts. On March 2, 2006, Greenhalgh laid off chief curator Jacqueline Serwer, traveling exhibitions director Joan Oshinsky, European art curator Laura Coyle, prints and drawings curator Eric Denker, and senior curator of education Susan Badder. The branch of the museum responsible for education programs has been folded into the Corcoran College of Art & Design under dean Christina DePaul, and the prints and drawings category has been rolled up into the larger headings of American and European art. None of the curatorial positions have been restaffed.

Greenhalgh won’t speak to any of the specific positions or people lost—or when or whether they will be replaced. “We’re looking at what kinds of colleagues we need,” he says.

The curators who remain—Philip Brookman, media and photography curator Paul Roth, and associate curator of contemporary art Sarah Newman—specialize in modern techniques and modern and contemporary art. Yet contemporary programs have been among the ones to fall by the wayside. Brookman says that the staff’s diminished size won’t affect its ability to work in an environment that emphasizes art from the permanent collection.

“The curatorial staff we have can cater to the collection,” Brookman says. But he acknowledges that the Corcoran’s headcount is less than optimal. “The complicated thing is the mix of exhibitions and collection activity we have. We need to fill out our staff to do the full range of things we do. We need people on a couple of fronts to help. What we’re doing now is sort of looking at long-term plans. We’re involved in developing a five-year strategic plan.”

This year the Corcoran suffered another blow with the loss of curator of contemporary art Jonathan Binstock, who left the museum for the private sector. (He is senior vice president for the art advisory service at Citi, formerly Citibank.) Stacey Schmidt, a former associate curator of contemporary art who worked with Binstock on projects like the Corcoran Biennial, says that accomplishing projects wasn’t easy even when the Corcoran was running at full curatorial capacity under David Levy. “Chief curator Jackie Serwer and curator of contemporary art Jonathan Binstock were completely committed to doing the best exhibits and projects possible, despite the rather draconian financial and programmatic constraints they were operating under.” (The Corcoran Biennial, which was last mounted in 2005, has since been suspended; Greenhalgh says that there was never a formal decision to cancel the program and that the museum is examining the model to determine whether it will renew the exhibition.)

Terrie Sultan, curator of contemporary art from 1988 to 2000, echoes Schmidt’s concerns. “When I came in, in 1988, there was a push for and recognition for the kind of contemporary program I was interested in doing,” she says. “When David [Levy] came in, he wanted to do a broader, more populist program for the audience that he wanted to appeal to. So you get a show like Annie Leibovitz.” Sultan points out that the Corcoran has returned to the photographer’s work: After staging Annie Leibovitz: Women in 1999 and 2000, it is now exhibiting Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990n2005.

Binstock, however, disagrees with any assertions that he was operating under pressure, financial or otherwise. “Except for a few exceptions, museums are always thinking in terms of streamlining programs,” he says. “I was given a lot of freedom to curate the kinds of shows that I wanted to curate,” he says. “While we had to raise the money for the projects we wanted to do—so if we generated a lot of money, we could do a big expensive show we wanted to do—I didn’t feel that streamlining of programs in terms of my curatorial role. Free to be a curator if I wanted to be a curator, free to travel if I wanted to travel, free to make a big show if I wanted to make a big show—to an extent.”

An issue more pressing than the Corcoran’s public-identity crisis is the state of the museum’s facilities. The beaux-arts building, constructed in 1897, needs roof and façade repairs. Reported original estimates for the renovation pegs the total required cost at $40 million, but the Corcoran says that figure is inflated, estimating roof repairs at $12 million and façade repairs at $1 million. The Levy administration had planned to close the museum in 2003 in order to complete the renovation and expansion. Greenhalgh is continuing with the renovation, though in a manner that will not require the museum to close.

“At this stage, the policy moving forward is identifying the tasks we need to undertake and tackling them as we go,” says Greenhalgh. “One can incrementally tackle these problems.”

Greenhalgh will not comment on what costs the Corcoran has calculated or how much it will spend in the immediate future to address restoration. “We know what it will cost to repair the roof, and we have a very significant portion of that cost in place,” he says. “We’ve separated out the tasks so that we can approach them in a logical manner. The roof will be done in the next two years; the front façade is imminent. And we’re rescuing one gallery after another as we go.” He notes that last year the museum received a federal Save America’s Treasures grant for $250,000 to renovate the building.

Schmidt, who did not work on the Gehry campaign, says that this piecemeal approach is preferable. “It did strike me as irresponsible to be ‘going forth’ with such a massive financial undertaking when clearly the gorgeous beaux-arts building that we were living in needed a ton of TLC (e.g. new roof, general cleaning and repair, painting, etc.),” she writes in an e-mail. “It seems like some of these things have been addressed under Greenhalgh’s reign, which I think is great.”

Though perhaps not as immediate a concern as the state of the building, the state of the Corcoran’s board of trustees—and the donations that spring from it—is another problem for Greenhalgh. To a large extent that issue is one he inherited after David Levy’s departure. “When longtime directors leave an organization, sometimes key benefactors leave,” says Jan Rothschild. “The way the board decided to transition David was not wise.”

The climate of apprehension on the board regarding the Gehry’s rising costs grew more troubled after Levy’s ouster, Rothschild says. “When an organization and an institution invests so much of their real capital, heart, and soul into an expansion project—David’s a very dynamic person, and he brought people who shared his vision of the institution,” she says. “There was a lot of dissent [following Levy’s resignation]. A lot of people felt that they had to leave.”

Among the trustees who left in protest were Bob Millard, Howard Milstein, and Bob Pittman. Since Levy’s administration, the number of trustees has declined overall. Though the Corcoran’s bylaws allow for as many as 18 active board members, today nine people are on the board.

“Joanne Conway, she was our most generous trustee—she was gone immediately,” says the former Corcoran employee who was familiar with the museum’s finances. “She lived out in Merrywood, which is the Kennedy home out in McLean, and she hosted events for us. She was a large campaign donor.” Major art donor Olga Hirshhorn initially pulled her support for the Corcoran after Levy’s resignation. “I did not like the way that David Levy was forced to retire,” she says. She also stopped donating from her collection. “I was through giving them any more,” she says. “They still have over 700 items that I gave them. I was just through giving them the rest of my collection.”

Trustees who spoke to City Paper, some of whom did so only on condition of anonymity, praised Greenhalgh generally and “Modernism” specifically, citing in particular the involvement of Corcoran College of Art & Design students in the production and design of the exhibition. Brookman expands on this feature. “The idea is that we’re now involving faculty and students with designing in exhibitions, [and] in some ways the curriculum of the school will flow from that partnership,” he says. “We’ll be teaching classes on exhibition design, for example, and [students] will have experience working on that.”

Nevertheless, trustees suggested one complaint was common among the board. It’s an issue that no critics registered: “Modernism” took up too many rooms.

“Will there be another one like that? No,” says sustaining trustee Deane Shatz. “That took up the whole museum. In the future, there will be galleries that will show Leibovitz, Ansel Adams, and whoever from the American collection and the European collection. That particular category of show won’t be at the Corcoran again.”

“The only thing I didn’t like was that it took up the entire museum, and when one person had seen it, they didn’t come back,” says Carolyn Alper, a sustaining trustee. “There was nothing else to see.”

Visit length seems to be a topic of concern among trustees, and it’s a popular explanation for the attendance shortfall that is frequently mentioned. “[‘Modernism’] was not what you’d call a blockbuster. It was very intense,” says Shatz. “It was not the kind of thing you could come and look at five pictures or 50 pictures and leave. A friend and I went to look at the ‘Modernism’ show for an hour, had lunch, and went back for another hour. How many people are going to go into a museum and spend over two hours looking at a show?”

Greenhalgh did make one immediate board change upon his arrival: He eliminated the Corcoran’s board of overseers. A former staffer explains that the board of overseers, which was responsible for the college and the museum, was involved in the day-to-day administration of the Corcoran. Although this board did not contribute financially at the level of the board of trustees, the group donated artworks and unrestricted annual funds. Greenhalgh said that the board of overseers was reorganized into two committees: a committee for education and a committee for the collection.

“Our board has been looking in a very constructive way over the last 18 months to make it the most effective for the institution,” Greenhalgh says.

The Corcoran is still searching for its identity, but Binstock says that looking at the building or the board to find it is wrong-minded. “The Corcoran has many strengths,” he says. “How to convey those strengths to the public is another set of challenges. But if we’re talking about what the Corcoran is, it is what its permanent collection is, and that’s the definitive aspect of its makeup.”

Leibovitz recently sounded an optimistic note about the museum that’s experiencing so much disarray. Speaking to an audience assembled to celebrate the opening of her exhibit, she extolled the Corcoran, calling it her second home. She recalled that for her last show at the museum, she was joined at the opening by family members and friends who had since died, among them her partner, Susan Sontag. Leibovitz said the show, which includes private snapshots alongside her celebrity portrait photography, fit the Corcoran in a way it didn’t fit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

And Olga Hirshhorn, who had withdrawn her support to the Corcoran after Levy’s departure, is more comfortable with the idea of giving to the museum again.

“Oh, I might,” she said when asked if she planned to donate works again. “I do care about the Corcoran. I might give them something more.”