DAVID LEVY built the Parsons School of Design from scratch, but fell short
at the CORCORAN.
CJ: When did you start talking about the addition to
DL: It was clear from the very beginning that the place had to expand. It goes back to this historical issue–how do you support an institution that has to compete with the Smithsonian, the most heavily supported public institution in the world. You're out-gunned on every side. There's just no way you can compete with an institution that, in addition to its endowment, its collection, and its fundraising, gets a line item out of the federal budget for $100 million.
CJ: Was Frank Gehry always the first choice to design
DL: No, not at all. First of all we set up a selection committee. It is very common when people go out looking for architects to bring in a number of consultants, who tell you how to do architectural selection; and they are very boring [laughs among the audience]. I asked a very old friend of mine, who actually took my old job now, Paul Goldberger, who is the architecture critic for the NewYork Times and the New Yorker-if he would come down and be the consultant for this selection process. Paul came and worked with group of trustees and staff a period of almost two years. We started out with about 250 that quickly narrowed down to 60. Then after a request for qualifications we narrowed it down to ten, and invited them to come and make presentations. We then narrowed it to three and then asked them to make a whole presentation of their ideas, which we held as an open forum in our auditorium, and our in-close constituency were all invited to come see. The committee met for about three days and chose Frank Gehry.
CJ: And it was launched. And that was a good
relationship for you, working with him?
DL: Frank Gehry is an extremely interesting guy to work with–not just because he is a very creative architect, but he has such confidence in his ability. I said to Frank, ‘The entrance to this building is in the wrong place; we need to make this a much more important entrance.' He says,‘Sure. Okay. We'll fix that.' Just like that, because he has that confidence. I never worked with a designer who is easier to work with in terms of design issues than Frank Gerhy. Now, you want to talk to him about money, that's another story. [laughter among the lunching audience]
CJ: Tell me, do you think there is any scenario in
which the addition can be revived?
DL: They [the Corcoran Board] don't want to do it. Keep in mind that we got $40 million dollars from the District of Columbia.
CJ: Can that money be touched for anything else?
DL: No. And that is twice as much money as the District has ever committed to any cultural institution in its history. There was a tremendous act of faith in this building by every conceivable constituency here. In their defense, the price had escalated–we had 110 million bucks and we needed $160 or $170 million and they thought it was a bridge too far, I did not. I completely disagreed with that. Here's what people need to know: the architectural plans for this building are complete.
CJ: And paid for? They belong to the Corcoran?
DL: They belong to the Corcoran. The construction drawings are finished. You turn this over to a contractor, and they can build that building tomorrow. If there is a change in leadership or if somebody emerges, who wants to see that building built it can be built… and it may happen.
CJ: It was very interesting what Mr. Gehry said
after the “blank” hit the fan–that the board didn't
understand that most museums don't run on a profit.
DL: Well that's true, and no one really expects them to. In Washington, there is nothing you can do that can't be done better–or at least better funded–by the public institutions that are surrounding you on all sides.
CJ: Well, what's up with you now? Let's put the
Corcoran behind us. I'm sure you have, right?
DL: Sure…[laughter]. I have become the senior educational consultant to Sotheby's and Sotheby's Institute, which is their educational program that most people don't know about. They offer masters degrees in London and New York and a series of other programs. The corporate headquarters is actually here in Bethesda.
CJ: But wouldn't you like to run an institution again?
DL: No. [laughter]
CJ: No? Why not? Where you pick the board of
DL: I have been running institutions pretty much since I was 30 years old. It's certainly a very comfortable thing for me, in the sense that I understand it, I know how to do it. But institutions have no memory. You can build an institution–I built Parsons School of Design from 500 students to 12,000. I made it the most important institution of its kind in the world. Do you know what it feels like to call a place like that up and give them your name and they
don't know who you are?
CJ: We're talking about education and one thing we
didn't discuss was the Corcoran College of Art& Design. Was that a source of pleasure?
DL: Running a school is always a mixed blessing because you have to deal with the faculty. The faculty has its own idea of what it wants to do. The Corcoran really deals principally with photography, painting and sculpture, and graphic design. We've now developed a number of other graduate programs, but I still wouldn't call it a comprehensive art school. I think that the principal problem with that school is the facility. If you are in the school business you are in a competitive business like anybody else then you are trying to recruit the most talented students you can find, but when they walk into your building and discover that they are going to spend four years in your basement…
CJ: What do you think your legacy at the Corcoran
DL: No one has ever asked me that before. I think that my principal legacy is that I stabilized the place and gave it a foundation and a set of principles that it can build a future on. We built the college–it's the only art school in Washington. If you wanted to be in art school, short of going to New York, this is the best city you could study in. So if the college could just get its act together in terms of offering the students a decent facility, it would be one of the greatest art colleges in America. The museum is in a much more difficult position.
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