Being a resident of Washington, DC I was extremely disappointed to find that the Corcoran School and Gallery of Art decided to pull the plug on its expansion two years ago. The Corcoran board of trustees announced in May of 2005 that they would not go forward with Gehry’s design citing a lack of funding for the project. This declaration came shortly after David Levy resigned as president and director of the CSGA. In a prepared statement, Levy told the board that the 136-year-old Washington institution had "made a great deal of progress over the 14 years of my tenure," adding that "we are on the brink of securing the Corcoran's future for generations to come." He acknowledged that completing the Gehry project was an "enormous challenge," but he disagreed strongly with the board's decision. "Publicly 'suspending' the Gehry campaign," he said, "is tantamount to declaring it dead and buried." Levy had been under pressure from board members who felt that his focus on the Gehry project had kept the museum from addressing other pressing needs.
So, after researching the finances of the CSGA I found that they were in the red for seventeen of the past twenty years. The three years that they actually turned a profit came by way of large donations from private sources. This is the dilemma: keep doing what you are doing (which obviously is not working) or bring in one of the world’s most renowned architects to spark and potentially grasp the public’s interest by commissioning a Gehry museum design. As historians of art, it seems to me that the CSGA’s board of trustees might realize the value of art (and architecture) as an investment.
This is where the Eiffel tower blip in the title of this post comes in. The Eiffel tower came under scrutiny as well, a petition circulated against its construction. “Honored compatriot, we come, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the beauty of Paris -- a beauty until now unspoiled -- to protest with all our might, with all our outrage, in the name of slighted French taste, in the name of threatened French art and history, against the erection, in the heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower. Listen to our plea! Imagine now a ridiculous tall tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black factory smokestack, crushing with its barbaric mass Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the dome of Les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all our humiliated monuments, all our dwarfed architecture, which will be annihilated by Eiffel's hideous fantasy.”
Maybe the board of the CSGA is not aware that the Eiffel Tower, one of the world’s most iconic pieces of architecture, was nearly scrapped as well. After being awarded the contract to build the tower, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel discovered that the Exposition Committee would only grant about a fourth of the money needed to construct it. Eiffel himself had to finance the balance; in doing so he struck a deal that would make him a very rich man. He agreed to independently find the financial backing for his tower but he wanted sole control of the tower and its profits for twenty years. They agreed. In a surprise to everyone, including Eiffel, the tower was paid off in the first year.
This is an astounding example of what powerful architecture can do for a building type that charges an admission fee, unlike most museums in the District; the Corcoran is not free ($8/head). I doubt the CSGA would have turned a profit in the first decade of the wing’s addition, but I am willing to bet that it would eventually be financially set for “generations to come” (example: Guggenheim, NYC). For those of you who do not know, Gehry is pushing 77. Truth be told, there will only be a handful or two of his masterpieces to come. Had the museum been built, it would have attracted millions over the building’s lifespan. In doing so, we would have been both blessed with great architecture and secured the longevity of a private institute for the arts. I guess the Corcoran, the residents of, and those who visit the nation’s capitol, lost on all accounts.
Post Script: I have spent over 12 hours in the past two days building a model; I’ll try to throw a pic up once it is finished.