Monday, February 24, 2014

Washington Social Diary

They danced on the Titantic,  too, but maybe with the Corcoran the ball will go on.
by Carol Joynt

Word of the death spread through Washington with the urgency of something that had happened suddenly, unexpectedly, but the truth is the death of the Corcoran Gallery of Art has been slow and a long time coming. The death certificate won’t be signed until April, when the various pertinent boards are scheduled to give formal approval. After that, the organ harvesting begins by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, the two institutions through which the gallery’s legacy will live on. NGA gets the art; GWU gets the building and the school of art and design.

Obituaries were written with a tone of heartbreak, and that’s fair for those who feel that way, but the other way to see it is as a rescue for an art collection, a board of directors who had no way out — from mounting debt, a shrinking endowment — and for a gorgeous Beaux-Arts building in need of significant and costly repair so it can stand proudly through this century and beyond.
The Corcoran Gallery on a summer day several years ago, about the time the Gehry design was under consideration.
Somewhere, though, the spirit of Robert Mapplethorpe is smiling. If you believe the dead can exact revenge, then this is just payback for him. His photographs, both beautiful and brutal, were a key factor in what may have been the beginning of the end for the Corcoran, way back in 1989. That’s when the Gallery’s timid board, caving to threats from Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and other members of Congress, cancelled a posthumous exhibition of his work, “The Perfect Moment.” Helms, not to my knowledge an arts visionary, pulled together other members of Congress who were offended by the exhibition’s content and that it was federally funded by the National Endowment of the Arts.

A Robert Mapplethorpe self-portrait from 1980. Not smiling then, but maybe his spirit smiles now.
The exhibition that never was at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Wherever he was when the Corcoran’s demise was announced I’d like to think that architect Frank Gehry, too, gave in to a Cheshire grin, because he was involved in a later brouhaha in which a much-anticipated design of his fell victim to the Corcoran’s wobbly way of going about business.

That was 2005, when the Corcoran board voted to stop work on a planned and stunning $170 million Gehry addition to the main building. The project was so far along it had gone through the permits and approvals process. Corcoran president and director David Levy, who had shepherded the project, resigned, dismayed. “The board felt the Gehry building was a distraction; I felt the opposite,” he told The New York Times. “I saw it as a ... way of transforming a gray old institution.”

Maybe “gray” and “old” were the Corcoran’s comfort zone, a traditional posture that worked in the last century but didn’t necessarily translate to now, compounded by the fact they charge for admission (not usually done in DC museums) and their location, nearly next-door to the White House, was slightly compromised by post 9/11 restrictions related to heightened security.

It was not easy to drive there and find a parking space. The nearest subway stop is several blocks away. Tourists had to trek slightly off the beaten path. Levy believed the Gehry creation would have a “Bilbao Effect.” The board changed its mind about spending the money.

The collection inside is a reported $2 billion in paintings, sculpture and photographs. The muscle is its American inventory, spanning the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with paintings by John Singer Sargent, Albert Bierstadt, Gilbert Stuart, Frederic Edwin Church, Mary Cassatt, and Edward Hopper.
The Frank Gehry design for the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
For there to be a happy afterlife ahead a lot depends on the National Gallery of Art and what it does with its new bounty of some 17,000 works. The future of the big art should be obvious. But what about everything else? At this early stage no one is mentioning the word that strikes fear in the hearts of donors: deacquisition. Museums can be stealth in that regard, wanting what they want and not wanting what can bring some financial gain. Only last year the Corcoran itself put up at Sotheby’s a collection of Oriental carpets that brought $39 million.

The early reporting on the deal says the NGA will keep in its East Wing and West Wing the art that fits with its overall collection mandate, noting the Corcoran provenance. NGA would also oversee two ongoing galleries at the Corcoran, one for exhibitions of contemporary and modern art and the other for shows of “legacy” works. The remaining pieces will be distributed to museums across the country, with museums in Washington having first dibs. If the plan sticks, it is a dismantling that will ultimately benefit many. The National Gallery’s director, Rusty Powell, called it “a huge gift to the nation.”
Frank Herrera, photograph of The Perfect Moment protest, June 30, 1989, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

After the Corcoran cancelled the Mapplethorpe exhibit, the Washington Project for the Arts protested by projecting images of him and his works on the Corcoran building.
Social Washington will be wondering what happens to the annual spring Corcoran Ball. Can it go on? Should it go on? Once upon a time it was one of the city’s most glittering formal social occasions, and the grand prom of what passes for the capital’s country club set, before the corporate dollar changed the landscape of exhibitions and museum fundraising.

Like the Gallery, the ball is old school, run by a women’s committee who are listed on the program by their husbands’ names. There are fashion lunches in advance to help women choose their gowns. But that genteel quality was also part of the charm, plus dramatic and artful flower arrangements. It’s a seated candlelight dinner, followed by big band dancing after in the marble atrium.
The grand staircase of the Corcoran Gallery, always a dramatic centerpiece of the Corcoran Ball.
The 2013 Corcoran Ball, done up for spring.
Cocktails before dinner.
Newlywed Lisa Mangiapani putting the Corcoran's grand staircase to good use.
But even the Corcoran Ball has not been spared from the Gallery’s turmoil. Last year some notable women’s committee members, and some long time patrons, boycotted the ball, upset over the general management of the institution and the ball in particular, which they wanted made more accessible to others, meaning finding ways to attract younger people.

One committee member wrote in an email: “I’ve had enough. The Titanic is sinking and the women keep dancing in the ballroom. If only they had looked further than their Junior League ways and had included the community.” The turnout last year was in the range of 700, down from 1,100 in 2007, before the Great Recession cast its long shadow on the gala scene.
The Corcoran Ball flowers are done by Jack H. Lucky Floral Design.
For the Corcoran Ball, guests dine in the gallery's different exhibition spaces
.For each room, the decor is different.
Food among the art and flowers.
One of the many bars set up for the Corcoran Ball.
Making sure the place cards are correct before dinner begins.
The traditional trumpeting of the guests to dinner.
Tickets for the Corcoran Ball run $500 per person.
For most Corcoran Balls, the dinner is overseen by Occasions Caterers.
An Occasions dessert designed to match the flowers.
Deborah de Gorter and Marston Luce at last year's ball. Sis Hedden and a friend.
Toby and Myra Moffett.
On the right, Sharon Bradley. Michele Evans at the Corcoran Ball a few years ago.
Myra Moffett and Aubrey Sarvis at the 2013 Corcoran Ball.
Christine Rales, in the center, with friends at the 2010 Corcoran Ball.
Jonathan Martin and Betsy Fischer in 2010
Whether the Corcoran ball continues — in its current or a more inclusive mode — the building will remain a terrific entertaining space. It seems to be rented out on a consistent basis. I’ve been there for weddings, and the setting was perfect. I’ve been there for large private hoedowns — pre-inaugural parties, holiday parties — that were over the top and, again, a perfect fit.
While there is a disco scene upstairs at the Corcoran  Ball, the main event is dancing in the Atrium to the Jack Felten Orchestra.
A beautiful entertaining space: the wedding of Lisa Weir and Daniel Mangiapani at the Corcoran Gallery in 2011.
Best memory of all, though, was a small, seated luncheon for the landmark 1982 vintage of Chateau Margaux, adorned with a label painted by the late film legend, John Huston. His daughter, Anjelica Huston, and Margaux’s owner, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, hosted the party in one of the smaller galleries. We sat among beautiful paintings.  Luncheon lasted for at least a few hours — delicious food, charming toasts and bottle after bottle of the ’82 Margaux, which now sells for many hundreds of dollars, if you can find it. Of all my Corcoran memories, I’d like to have that day back.

There’s been no timetable announced yet on when the Corcoran Gallery as we know it closes and the new iteration opens for visitors. We do know that like the NGA, admission will be free. How about this for the first exhibition of contemporary art: Robert Mapplethorpe.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter 1979. From Mapplethorpe's exhibition, The Perfect Moment.
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt