If you tuned in yesterday to The Kojo Nnamdi Show‘s segment on the Corcoran controversy, you didn’t hear much new: mostly rehashed arguments that have been covered by this blog, the Washington Post, and e-mails from the Save the Corcoran campaign. On one side, the museum’s director and board says the institution is too cash-strapped to undertake $130 million in renovations, which is why the Corcoran should look into selling its building and moving elsewhere. On the other side, Save the Corcoran argues that the Flagg building is the Corcoran’s identity, and that poor leadership has not raised enough money or provided a clear vision.
I posted this idea to Kojo’s site: The Corcoran should buy the Hecht Warehouse campus on New York Avenue NE from Douglas Development. Partner with the city to raze nearby abandoned buildings, and encourage the city to incentivize developers and business owners to move there. Encourage other area visual and performing arts nonprofits to move out there with you, and create an arts district. Kojo sold it as “Buy the Hecht Campus.” Jayme McLellan of Save the Corcoran frustratedly responded, “Stay in your building.”
My idea is cockamamie, partly because the Hecht Warehouse is not for sale (it is up for lease, though, probably because Douglas, like previous owners, can’t make it work). And, as City Paper wrote in 2008, there is no there there. It is why partnership with the city is essential to erase the eyesores commuters and tourists see when entering the city from Route 50. Just imagine driving past the Arboretum, past a small development of restaurants and shops, before passing a giant museum, arts college, and art district.
But first, why should the Corcoran leave the Flagg building?
The HV/AC is not up to date. One hundred and fifteen years of hanging art have left walls pock-marked with anchors and patches. The elevators don’t support heavy and large objects. Offices are crowded. Studios are crammed. Art facilities are sub-par. And for decades the institution has been unable to overcome these issues financially.
The arguments to stay in the Corcoran are problematic. It’s been its home since 1897: irrelevant. The sight lines are perfect for viewing art: If the institution is shuttered, those site lines matter little. It’s facade states it is a place for art: Functions change. It was founded to encourage the American genius: It can do that elsewhere. It is the biggest piece of the collection: No, it isn’t. Technically the building was built after William Corcoran died. Yes, it is beautiful. But it also looks like most of the other bureaucratic buildings near it: vaguely Neo-Classical and mostly European. It needs a building that can reflect something more contemporary. Gehry would have achieved that had the donations not dried up, and the cost of the addition not ballooned. Perhaps a move to Hecht can achieve it.
Since Save the Corcoran complains, in an e-mail, that the Corcoran’s director and board are “treating the institution like a dry business transaction,” let’s compare some numbers dryly.
Estimated Value: Corcoran: $116 Million | Hecht: $20 million
Square Footage: Corcoran: 135,000 | Hecht: 768,000
Style: Corcoran: Beaux Arts |Hecht: Art Deco
Parking: Corcoran: metered street parking | Hecht: ample spaces on Okie Street NE 16th Street NE, and New York and West Virginia Avenues
Renovations: Corcoran: $130 Million | Hecht: Unknown.
Clout: Both are on the National Register of Historic Places. Corcoran is a U.S. National Historic Landmark
Jamye McLellan stated on Kojo that the Corcoran needs to give the community a vision in order to be successful. It might actually be the other way around. The Corcoran has been nearsighted and myopic throughout the last few decades: It does not do vision. All one has to do is consider blunders before Mapplethorpe and Gehry.
For instance, in June of 1961, the Board of Trustees denied Alice Denney a requested space to exhibit contemporary art, stating the Corcoran’s preference to neither collect nor exhibit contemporary work. That rejected contemporary gallery became the Washington Gallery of Modern Art (WGMA), which exhibited the first Kline retrospective, and the first major Pop Art exhibition (in a museum). By October 1, 1968, the Corcoran absorbed the faltering WGMA and sold the permanent collection to the Oklahoma Art Center a week later for $110,000. At least they kept Walter Hopps.
That’s not to say the Corcoran has never been contemporary, or supportive of local artists. Recent initiatives have been decent efforts, and many of their recent rotating exhibitions have been blockbusters. But they need to go bigger. And the Hecht building is bigger, effectively quintupling the space of the current Corcoran. With additional space the Corcoran can exhibit more of its collection, feature more rotating exhibitions, sell spaces to other area arts organizations, and do something that is of rumored interest to the board: Double enrollment. Until that happens, they can rent studio spaces to area artists.
It’s a crazy idea. But, isn’t it time for us to have an arts district? The Corcoran could lead the way, saving itself and boosting D.C. arts.
Photo via Flickr user NCinDC, Creative Commons License