Corcoran Gallery of Art Struggles to Pick Up the Pieces : Fight Over Show Closure May Shift Equation in Museums’ Relationships With Artists

Times Staff Writer

In 1869, philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran founded an art museum here to “promote the American genius.”

In time, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran School of Art, which today has more than 900 students, grew to become one of the most significant artistic forces on the East Coast.

The Corcoran’s white marble beaux-arts building, built in 1897 by the architect Ernest Flagg, is a stone’s throw from the White House and has historically been not much farther removed than that from the exercise of political power in the arts.

But--temporarily, at least--all of that has blown sky high.

It appeared to happen suddenly, at the beginning of the summer. At a board meeting whose agenda was left vague--deliberately, critics have charged--Christina Orr-Cahall, the Corcoran’s director and one of eight people to head it in the last 20 years, engineered a board decision canceling a retrospective show of work by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

That move, in turn, transformed a political bombshell that had initially blown up over two grants--including one to support the Mapplethorpe show--by the National Endowment for the Arts into a political nuclear device in the high-megaton range.


As a result, the Corcoran finds itself boycotted by artists whose work it wanted to display in exhibits that have now been canceled, reviled by arts observers and art patrons across the country and hamstrung by rebellion from its 6,500 members, 9% of whom have dropped out in the last 12 months.

Some of the defections occurred because membership peaked last summer, anyway, when the Corcoran hung a blockbuster, “Odyssey: The Art of Photography at National Geographic.” But Corcoran officials say half of the falloff has come since July 1, apparently a direct result of the Mapplethorpe episode.

Yet the Corcoran’s situation remains emotionally charged; initial signs have emerged that the upheaval may have a different, completely unforeseen element. The Corcoran’s devastating mistake, say artists and arts observers, may have started to alter the equation that governs power among artists, museums, collectors and galleries.

That this unintended development had occurred became apparent when artists pulled out of two scheduled Corcoran shows, forcing their cancellation, and threatened to torpedo a third. Then artist Lowell Nesbitt cut the Corcoran--to which he had said he would leave $1.5 million worth of his estate--out of his will.

The chief curator quit. The public relations staff gave notice. The art school’s students marched on the Capitol to protest what was going on in the Senate and, when Orr-Cahall said she wanted to go along, the students told her to stay behind.

The artists’ sense of rage increased last week, artists here say, when the Corcoran issued a statement saying the trustees “deeply regret” that the attempt to defuse the controversy didn’t work. But the statement didn’t concede the decision was wrong.

The Corcoran has been unable even to decide whether to fire Orr-Cahall, 42, who came from the Oakland Museum. Monday, the board voted to appoint a committee to make recommendations on defusing the crisis, and board insiders say the committee has been directed to make its recommendations within the next week to 10 days.

Orr-Cahall declined to be interviewed for this article. However, in a telephone interview last week--before appointment of the board committee but after she rebuffed a request from the Corcoran staff that she resign--she conceded the Mapplethorpe decision was a blunder.

“What the Corcoran did was a tactic,” she said. “We thought it would work, but our tactic failed. We regret we tried it. We should have damned the torpedoes and gone full-speed ahead, but that is the beauty of hindsight. I’m not going to defend it.

By successfully refusing to permit their work to be included in Corcoran exhibitions, artists may have taught it, other museums and themselves a crucial political lesson. “It’s a tragic situation that has positive consequences and this is one of them,” said Ned Rifkin, chief curator for exhibitions at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum and former curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran.

“There’s a sense among artists that, without them, there is no art. There is no product to sell. There is nothing to package and own and, ultimately, to institutionalize.”

“We have always been victims of the curators,” said Georgia Deal, a local artist and former chair of the Corcoran art school’s print-making department, on whose faculty she still serves. “It was like, grovel, grovel. What might they do for us? Artists have become aware of their own power and that the museums don’t exist--can’t exist--without them.”

“It has always been the artist as a beggar coming to the major institutions,” said Judy Baca, director of the Social Public Art Resource Center in Venice. “Artists would say, ‘Would you please let me show? I need to say I was in your exhibition.’ It’s a fairly new concept to think of it in reverse.”

To Tony Jones, president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, this empowerment could carry with it considerable contagion. “These are people who are at the cutting edge of actually making the work,” he said. “They can say, ‘Where is my work going to go?’

“It’s very damaging (to an institution) to see artists declining to show work. This begins to raise questions of all sorts, (of) whether one wants to be associated with such an institution.”

The situation has already emerged as a non-agenda item for the board of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which is reliably said to have engaged in an impromptu analysis last week of implications of change in the division of power between artists and museums. “There was,” said someone familiar with the discussion, “just a tad bit of fear.”

But not all artists agree. Some fear the heady talk is just bravado and that museums, galleries and artists will find that provocative work with political, sexual or controversial overtones is simply not considered to be shown or not created.

Susan Harlan, a Corcoran faculty member, said she expects such a chill: “There are going to be repercussions in choices of shows. I think there is a trend for conservatism. Museums will think about what happened. People will remember this for a long time. I’m afraid of that.”

The Corcoran decision that touched all this off came as the Mapplethorpe work emerged as a key provocation for a political crisis enveloping the National Endowment for the Arts. The decision to kill the Mapplethorpe show was intended to contain the political explosion detonated by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)

The appeasement tactic’s immediate and lingering effect, however, was completely the opposite--precipitating such unremitting condemnation that, aside from the Corcoran’s own defensive statements, only Helms has publicly sided with the museum.

And adding to the futility of the decision, the Washington Project for the Arts, which has artists on its board--the Corcoran has none--and a progressive reputation, took the show, which was attended by nearly 50,000 people in a run of less than a month.

The Corcoran’s board, a cumbersome, 54-member body dominated by wealthy art patrons and local philanthropists, has appeared paralyzed as it struggled--as recently as Monday--to cope. It has been hamstrung by divisions between 20 old-line trustees appointed to life terms and the rest, who include a younger, more progressive wing. The gallery and school have a combined operating budget of $7.6 million this year.

“The Corcoran has suffered considerable damage,” said one board member, who spoke on the condition he would not be named. “Some people are saying that, in four years, it will all be history. That’s a joke. In four years, there may not be any contemporary art in the Corcoran.

“If the artists can boycott the Corcoran, they can boycott any museum. They’ve shown their strength. It’s a surprising strength”

“It’s a lose-lose situation,” for the Corcoran, said Jack Duncan, a Washington lobbyist whose clients include the American Council for the Arts and other major arts organizations. The Corcoran loses if Orr-Cahall stays, said Duncan and other observers, because artists may continue to withhold work from the Corcoran, its 20th-Century art program could collapse and the museum could be forced to retrench.

But, Duncan, members of the Corcoran School of Art faculty and other arts observers said that if Orr-Cahall is removed--a step many observers expect despite public declarations she will tough it out--the Corcoran may be unable to attract a new head politically strong and artistically well known enough to salvage things.

What makes the situation worse is that the Corcoran’s recent leadership history has been especially checkered. Orr-Cahall took over in late 1987 after the Corcoran had been without a permanent head for nearly a year in the wake of the forced resignation of her predecessor, Michael Botwinick. Botwinick’s departure came as a result of a wave of staff and faculty discontent that reportedly left morale at the Corcoran at a low ebb.

Edward J. Nygren, the acting director who took over after Botwinick departed, pulled out of consideration for the permanent position. “I decided I didn’t wish to be the director of a museum such as the Corcoran,” said Nygren, director of the Smith College Museum of Art in Massachusetts, earlier this week.

In Orr-Cahall, the Corcoran found a young and comparatively inexperienced director, but one with apparently excellent credentials whose early reviews were positive. “Every time a new personality comes along, there’s a feeling of optimism,” said Tom Green, a Corcoran faculty member for 20 years and member of the board of the Washington Project for the Arts. “When Orr-Cahall came along, I was really excited.”

But Deal and Green said things quickly started to deteriorate and that Orr-Cahall depicted herself as a functionary of the board whose performance soured her relationships with staff and faculty members.

With the Mapplethorpe episode a climactic failure, few museum experts believe Orr-Cahall has the capacity to be an effective leader. “When a professional makes a mistake, that person should be disciplined and the incident should be corrected,” said Thomas N. Armstrong III, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

The Whitney’s trustees took out full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post protesting the amendment to an endowment funding bill offered by Helms that would prohibit federal grants for obscene, indecent, sacrilegious or offensive artworks.

“But I don’t think the whole relationship of artists to institutions should be jeopardized by this,” Armstrong said. “The Corcoran is going to have to prove that it’s a professionally run institution that understands its role with artists.”

Political and arts observers here and elsewhere agreed that what really happened to the Corcoran may have been that the company-town climate of Washington, in which politics is the key industry and controls the social ecology, may have facilitated Orr-Cahall’s and the board’s misstep. It may have happened, said lobbyist Duncan and other arts observers, because the inherently political climate here led the Corcoran to believe that a political decision was permissible--when only an artistic judgment was appropriate.

Among Washington artists, not only has the episode birthed a heady new sense of empowerment, but it has taught political lessons, artists say.

“Artists either have to say Helms is right or they have to be prepared to take sides,” said Genna Watson, a local artist and 1983-84 winner in the prestigious, endowment-funded Awards in the Visual Arts program. “They have to say Helms is right or he is very wrong and it’s very destructive and very frightening what he is starting.

“Orr-Cahall and her board members put themselves on the other side of the fence. They were trying to be a neutral country, like Switzerland. But you can’t be a neutral country in this. It’s like Germany caving into Hitler.”

“Orr-Cahall says she didn’t want to come into a political battle between the NEA and Congress. We said, ‘What better a place to have been?’ ” said John Dixon, the Corcoran school’s chairman of fine arts.

“Politicians have not looked at artists as messengers,” he said. “Artists are generally perceived as being disconnected--some extremity out there that’s interesting. Artists are sensitive to the environment they are in. They are signaling things in the society that are either right or wrong.”