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For the most part, the requirements for the Corcoran College of Art & Design’s 2009 All-Alumni Exhibition seemed reasonable to Chris Combs. You had to be an alum, obviously, you could submit work from only the last three years, and you had to be a current member of the school’s alumni association. Combs, who graduated in 2006 and like all Corc grads got a free year of membership in the alumni association, e-mailed Shahdeh Ammadi, the school’s alumni relationship officer, to make sure he understood the terms correctly—-if he didn’t pay $40 to re-up, he couldn’t have his work juried by guest judge George Hemphill?

“Hello Chris,” Ammadi replied. “The exhibition is open to all alumni, meaning all mediums. The alumni association membership is a stipulation this year. The membership fee is $40 and includes a package of wonderful benefits.”

Wonderful? That’s too modest! Those benefits include:

  • Free admission to the Corcoran Gallery of Art (not too shabby: it’s $10 to get in otherwise)
  • Half off continuing education classes
  • Reciprocal admission at museums around the country
  • Through a partnership with the Cendant Corporation, the opportunity for traveling grads to stay in “fully-equipped 2-bedroom resort condos for as little as $349 a week.”

Combs, who works as a photo editor for National Geographic’s Web site, was not convinced, and not just because the last time he’d gone to the museum, to see the Annie Leibovitz exhibit, he found out his alumni membership didn’t cover his girlfriend’s admission (grads get a plus-one only for the permanent collection, not special exhibits). “I would say that one of the Corcoran College’s unique charms is its ability to both educate people and totally disillusion them,” he says, noting that his tuition for four years came to about $130,000 excluding room and board.

In a wide-ranging Washington City Paper article (“Painting by Blunders,” 10/19/2007), Kriston Capps chronicled the institution’s struggles—-staff churn, declining attendance, boardroom struggles, abandonment of a planned Frank Gehry—designed addition due to fundraising woes. Was the Corcoran hoping to patch up its fundraising by taxing its grads?

“At the end of the day,” says Ammadi, sitting in the museum’s atrium this past Friday morning, “I can assure you that the alumni fees” raised from the show “won’t even cover the reception.”

Ammadi is surprised there’s grumbling about the fee. It was her idea, she says, and she lives for alumni. She says she spends her nights and weekends keeping up with grads. She’s organized events at Art Basel Miami Beach and in New York. She just got back from Los Angeles, where she met with grads about the possibility of doing events there. She spent Easter with alums and her mom. Before she took the alumni-relations gig, Ammadi was the school’s career-services coordinator. She became obsessed with the Corcoran’s lousy grasp on where its grads were.

“We have a database of 2,500 alums from 1978 to 2009,” she says. “Out of that 2,500 people—-I’ve been doing my homework on this for years—-we have 250 e-mail addresses.” And about 100 of those bounce.

Ammadi decided that beefing up the alumni association was Job No. 1. The fee, she feels, is a buy-in, because people are “a little more invested” in things they’ve written a check for. “We just want people’s contact info,” she says. “And this is basically a systematic way.”

So why charge at all?

“The reason I’m surprised this is an issue is you have people who graduated in 1981 and to this day they haven’t paid a penny to their alma mater,” she says. “If you look at any school, when you do establish an alumni program, you don’t go in for money. You go in to connect with people who’ve attended your institution. You don’t go looking at it as a way to make someone a donor.”

Ben Tolman, who has a piece in this year’s alumni exhibition, paid the fee. “I thought that was fucked up that you had to join (and pay the almost $50) to be in the exhibition, but I did pay it and I am in the exhibition,” he writes in an e-mail. “I wouldn’t have but I was going to take a printmaking continuing education class, and to get the half priced tuition I would have to join anyway. I didn’t end up taking the class. The exhibition seems a little half-hearted, like they just needed something to fill the space for family weekend. There is no announcement of it as far as I can tell. Also, there is no opening reception, just a closing one to line up with family weekend. These exhibitions, along with the senior shows used to take place in the museum (My class was the last to exhibit in the museum) but now are in the ‘Gallery 31’ space that used to be the school offices. There is no chance of it being seen by the public unless they are coming specifically for that, and know where to go.”

Ammadi moved to the Corcoran’s development office when she took the alumni-relations gig. She’s also become an artist in her own right: After taking a jewelery-making course for fun (staff members get half off continuing education classes too), she started entering pieces in shows. “That goes to tell you what the Corcoran does to me,” she says. So far, she’s exhibited her Precious Metal Clay—formed pieces in a Smithsonian exhibit and at a Society of North American Goldsmiths show in Philadelphia. Juried shows, she notes, often have a fee.

But alumni shows rarely do, if a sampling of other prominent art schools is any indication. Not at the Rhode Island School of Design, says its media relations director, Jaime Marland. “[E]veryone who is defined as an alum is automatically a member of the alumni association – we don’t have any kind of dues paying system in order to join,” she writes in an e-mail. Not at the Pratt Institute, says Alumni Outreach Officer Leonardo Gomez: “We welcome submissions from all our alumni regardless of their ‘closeness’ to the Institute.” Not at the Savannah College of Art and Design, says its director of media relations, Sunny Nelson: “SCAD does not require its graduates to belong to the university’s alumni association in order to be considered for university-sponsored exhibitions. In fact, we work closely with many of our alumni to host exhibitions of their work at our locations in Savannah, Atlanta and Lacoste.” Not at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan (where alumni is “kind of a loose-knit situation anyway,” says Chris Hintz, the school’s marketing and communications director). And not at the School of the Arts at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University (this reporter’s alma mater, to which he has never given a dime), according to its director of communications, Dawn Waters, who says this is an imperfect comparison, because VCU doesn’t put on an annual alumni show.

It’s an imperfect comparison for other reasons, too. VCU’s art school is part of a massive and well-funded state university with more than 32,000 students. SCAD enrolls nearly 10,000, and Pratt has about 5,000. The Corcoran College of Art & Design has 350 altogether, and many of those who graduate head out into one of the diciest professions there is. Besides Tim Gunn (’76), there are not a lot of alumni with the means to endow a wing, unless Ian Svenonius has secretly been amassing a fortune trading soy futures (Svenonius did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment).

This year’s show—-51 grads submitted work; 25 got in—-opened this past Wednesday. It was a soft opening, not even on the college’s Web site, because the Corcoran is saving its promotional firepower for the Oct. 16 closing reception, which coincides with Corcoran Family & Alumni Weekend. There’ll be a reception, a bus trip out to Corcoran Vineyards (no relation) in Loudoun County, and many opportunities for grads to network.

“It always hurts a little to pay to submit work, but any artist that wants to get their work out there should expect to support the institution which puts on the show,” writes artist Rachel England in an e-mail. “It is ridiculous to complain about that. It costs money to put these things together and the Corcoran Alumni Association is avid about supporting their artists as much as possible. Even before I bought the subscription they advertised for my solo show on their website and have contacted me several times about opportunities in which we can participate for free.”

After our chat, Ammadi gave me a tour of the alumni exhibit.

Kristoffer Tripplaar is “one of our superstars,” she says. Melissa Ichiuji is “a very dynamic and interesting person.”

Natalie Cheung, she continues, “is huge in D.C. Huge.” Cheung interned in the office of development this past summer. “How could you not love someone like that?” Ammadi says.