Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Artful Dodging

DAVID LEVY built the Parsons School of Design from scratch, but fell short at the CORCORAN.
What went wrong?

In May 2005, David Levy's resignation as director and president of the Corcoran Gallery of Art came as a surprise (for most). During his fifteenyear tenure, the longtime art institution builder helped develop the Washington-based gallery and art school into a major center of American culture, while overseeing impressive fundraising efforts. The final straw was a proposed state-ofthe- art wing designed by Frank Gehry, which got sidetracked after funding stopped well short of its $160 million price tag. Was the Corcoran's effort to expand slowed by its own devices? Or is the larger issue simply an endemic consequence of endeavoring to build a private art institution in a publiclyfunded art town?

Carol Joynt: Let's start from the beginning.
David Levy:
I came to the gallery in 1991. I had been head of the Parsons School of Design prior to that and Chancellor of the New School for Social Research–or New School University as it came to be called.

CJ: When you were offered the Corcoran position, what did you know about the institution?
Not enough. [laughs from the audience] The truth of the matter was that the Corcoran board of trustees, probably historically, has kind of been in shambles. They had gone through the great convulsion with the controversy over the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in the late 1980's and I don't think they understood how deep the fundamental problems of the institution were, and they didn't really communicate that to me. I pretty much knew what I read in the newspaper and from the financial statements.

CJ: What did you see as your mandate?
You can't really hold a grudge against bricks and mortar, so we started from the beginning. People in Washington need to understand how unique this city is and what problems it poses for cultural institutions. This is a city that is not only dominated by public institutions, but dominated by public institutions that define their public pretty much as “everybody that doesn't live here,” i.e., the 25 million tourists who come into this city. The federal government is not giving $100 million a year to the Smithsonian to serve the 470,000 residents of the District of Columbia.

CJ: Can you cite an arts institution in D.C. where you think it does work?
Probably not. It's a different kind of city. The Phillips Collection might get close. This is a city that defines itself principally in terms of politics, however, politics is all-consuming intellectually and emotionally; it can become your life. New York is defined principally in terms of business. It is hard to make business your life. So New Yorkers look for other ways to define themselves–like culture. There are major businessmen in New York, and if you ask them what they do, they say, “I'm an art collector,” because their principle self-definition is about this other thing they do. And they put their money where their mouth is. In Washington there is much, much less of that.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art
David Levy and Carol Joynt


CJ: When did you start talking about the addition to the Corcoran?
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 the expansion?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
No. [laughter]

CJ: No? Why not? Where you pick the board of trustees?
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?
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 will be?
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.

For more information about to the Q & A Café at Nathan's, visit www.nathansgeorgetown. com. Nanthan's is located in the heart of Georgetown at the corner of Wisconsin and M Streets; 202.338.2000





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