Late last month, the privately supported Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, announced plans for “collaboration” with (read: "absorption by") the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University. The gallery, founded in 1869 by William Wilson Corcoran, houses works by artists including Rembrandt Peale, Edward Hopper, Pablo Picasso, and Claude Monet, to name a few. “Dedicated to art,” this institution is home to its Gallery of Art as well as its College of Art and Design in the heart of Washington.
Various sources have labeled the Corcoran’s recent move as its “final failure” and others called it the “demise of a venerable institution.” The proceedings even prompted The Washington Post to timeline the Corcoran’s “troubled history.” However, while some have narrowly focused on the Corcoran’s concerns and those of the metropolitan art community, others have seen this as an opportunity to reexamine broader cultural philanthropy, particularly its models, its trends, and its overall outlook.
One such report by the Marketplace Morning Report included an interview with art critic Blake Gopnik. The audio interview highlighted the importance of the Corcoran to the local community, and additionally explained “why [the Corcoran] fell victim to a failure of philanthropy.” Gopnik labels the takeover by the National Gallery of Art and GWU as “the best of all possible bad outcomes” and says “if there’s a problem here, it’s that the philanthropy failed.” He continues:
The basic model that we have in this country that says rich people will support the things the public needs just fell apart. . . . There are things the Corcoran could have done to stay alive but what it couldn’t do is attract rich people who cared. [The rich people] prefer to be on the board of the National Gallery or of the Smithsonian museums, right? That’s higher prestige and because of their prestige-seeking this whole institution dies – that’s what it boils down to.
Gopnik’s comments are intriguing because although he gives some of the responsibility to the Corcoran, the crux of his argument criticizes the philanthropic community, viz. their "prestige-seeking." His comments prompt a number of questions: why couldn’t the Corcoran attract “rich people who cared"? Would it have been possible for the Corcoran to foster an environment that would develop such prestige for its donors? Are all philanthropists necessarily “seeking prestige” or could they perhaps be acting charitably, selflessly, or for the interest of the arts?
In 2011, the Corcoran Gallery hit a seven-year low of attendance, with approximately 85,000 visitors. In addition, the museum ended “the fiscal year with a $7.2 million deficit.” Two years later, the museum began exploring a partnership with the University of Maryland, only to have nothing come from it. Going back further, one can find many other issues of the Corcoran’s management over time, reported the Washington Post. With negative trends such as these, would any level-headed philanthropist be enthusiastic to donate to such a cause when other viable alternatives serving similar purposes exist? Bracketing the strategic philanthropy debate for but a moment, deficits and poor attendance are unlikely to attract any donor (save, the U.S. taxpayer). At what point can we hold the Corcoran responsible for the Corcoran’s fall from grace?
In an odd way, I was reminded of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos’s response to Charlie Rose’s comment on 60 Minutes that “A lotta small book publishers and other smaller companies worry that the power of Amazon gives them no chance.” Bezos’s reply? “You gotta earn your keep in this world. . . . Complaining is not a strategy.”