Weil on the Corcoran
Corcoran Fiscal Mess: Blame Management not the Building
By Rex Weil
David Levy describes the Corcoran Gallery of Art as more like a church than a business (Washington Post 5/20/05). Insensitive types who insist on examining the books just don’t understand.
Is it Levy’s contention that churches don’t need strategic plans, sound budgets, fair employment practices and transparent accounting procedures?
In fact, the Corcoran’s director wants it both ways. After all, he hauls in a CEO salary in the neighborhood of $300,000, while most of his employees makes less that $50K and the vast majority far less, with few or no benefits. Obfuscatory accounting practices -- that would make Enron execs blush -- have bled the Corcoran College to make the Museum look healthy. Sounds more like a business to me -- just not a very good one.
Levy’s strategic plan: Treat your major constituencies (members, students, employees and faculty) with contempt and buy your way out of problems with a celebrity building. Well, it might have worked, but it hasn’t. As the Corcoran’s new Board Chairman learned recently "support for the Corcoran is 'superficial.'"
Meaning (I suppose), that, although everyone would like to see the Corcoran succeed, most people (a) just don't feel like they have a stake in it; and/or (b) are disappointed with current management. Let’s face it: practically everybody in Washington knows someone who has left the Corcoran in frustration or disgust. (I left in December, 2004 after teaching there since 1996). That’s bound to have a major snowball effect in terms of community support.
What Levy has apparently failed to grasp from the beginning: You have to build support from the bottom up with good programs and good relationships. Build the base – with satisfied, dedicated employees, enthusiastic students and their proud families, members invested in ambitious programming, and a committed long-term faculty advancing the institution. Those folks are, in turn, your best fundraisers.
Instead, (according to the Washington Post), the Corcoran has spent over 22 million on the Gehry addition. One way or another, a good deal of that 22 million has come out of the hide of students and their families, employees, faculty and admission paying visitors in poor facilities, shameful employment practices and dreary programming. All in all, the institution’s core constituencies are bitter and alienated.
It didn’t have to be that way. The building was not a bad idea. But running the institution into the ground with the idea that the Gehry magic would eventually save the day – that was a very bad idea, indeed.
The Gehry building can only come to pass as a reward to the institution from committed, grateful constituencies for work well done over a long period of time. No, it is not going to pay for itself by generating new money from new visitors. Like the Hard Rock Café – every city will have one. Of course, the tour buses will slow down and point it out. What’s inside the building is the important part. That’s the part the Corcoran has neglected.
New management might still be able to make a case for the building. David Levy can’t.