In 1970, I was appointed Dean of the Corcoran School of Art. Two years later, the Trustees named me Director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art; a position that I held until 1977.
The founder, William Wilson Corcoran Photo by Matthew Brady.
Even Agnes thinks that this photograph looks like me? Years ago, a former Leeds student, Mick Durham did a drawing over a copy of this image; with glasses, I do see a resemblance. Maybe I was meant to be at the Corcoran!
Corcoran Gallery and School of Art, located across from the White House & Executive Building.
The studios of the Corcoran School of Art were in the basement of the gallery. The marble floors of the museum atrium were edged with huge colossal slabs of opaque glass, discolored over the years to a greenish hue. The result was that the light was like that of a dingy aquarium. The intention of the architect Ernest Flagg, who designed the building in 1899, was for the natural light from the skylights on the roof to filter, through the upper and lower galleries, into the basement of the art school. The Corcoran must have been the only art school to have its studios not in the attic but in the basement its the dark corridor. That hall way had tables, chairs and a coke machine and was the cultural meeting place for faculty and students. That hall is where cultural conversation took place for there was no where else in the school or nearby to meet. The Corcoran is located across the street from the White House and Executive Offices. Parking was and is an ongoing problem. To have an art school with rebellious artists and straggly students was and is an anomaly for its location.
The facilities and equipment of the school were poor if non existent. After my days at Leeds College of Art, I could not believe the poverty of the place and the abysmal teaching. I was amazed to wander through some of the classes in that dingy dark basement. One class was called “European landscape 101”. In this class, students copied in pastels from postcards with scenes of Europe, unreal as was the teaching of perspective, pencil shading, anatomy and similar outdated academic topics. Obviously, I was going to change that in my class.
The Corcoran School had no full-time program and was not accredited. The classes varied from amateurs to aspiring artists. A large faculty, some fine artists, were paid miserably and treated badly by the Dean. Later, I found that the school provided income and badly needed money for the museum.
My first class was large, nearly fifty students, ranging in age from 18 to 80, many had come, curious to study with a Brit. I was going to teach the basics of shapes, form, line, color and texture. My first statement to that class is worth quoting. I said to my students, “For the next fortnight, I do not want you to use the rubber. You will draw on cartridge paper and at the end of the fortnight; we will use drawing pins to put the works on the wall for critique.” I looked at the class and there was complete silence, nothing happened. In the back of the class, a beautiful young girl gestured for me to follow her outside.
The student, in her twenties, was a State Department employee. She had lived and worked in London and, fortunately for me, understood the difference between English and American English. She explained to me that no one knew what I was saying because a fortnight was two weeks, a rubber was a prophylactic, cartridge paper was white paper and drawing pins were thumb tacks. In this way, I gained my first lesson in American English.
When we went back into the studio, the class was still sitting in dumb silence. I said, “Here is what I want you to do. In the next two weeks do not use the eraser, please draw on white paper and we will put the drawings up with thumbtacks at the end of two weeks.” There was a collective sigh of relief.
Although my first impressions of the Corcoran School were most negative, I realized that was the fault of the Colonel. The school was run to pay for the operation of the gallery; with faculty under paid and badly treated. I realized that on that faculty were some outstanding artists and fine teachers. Many remain good friends to this day: William Christenberry, Sam Gilliam, Ed McGowin, Robert Stackhouse, Brockie Stevenson, Peter Thomas, Elliott Thompson and Rosemary Wright. Also on the faculty were Leon Berkowitz, Gene Davis and Bill Dutterer; all deceased. Barbara Price was on the faculty and, later, came to join me at Cranbrook as Dean of the Academy.
I was most outspoken in my criticism of the school: particularly in a meeting of faculty with the gallery/ school administration. I could afford to be critical at that meeting in the spring of 1968, as I was a visiting artist; about to go back to England. On my return, later that year, I was contacted my Aldus Chapin, now Chief Executive of the Corcoran. He asked whether I would be willing to consider returning to the School as Associate Dean. After discussion and much thought, I decide to accept. I realized that there was far more opportunity for me in America. In September1969, I returned to the school as Associate Dean. Early the following year, the Trustees asked me to take over as Dean; the Colonel left. In November 1972, I was appointed Director of the Gallery; I continued to serve as Dean of the School.
Of course, there is far more to tell in regard to these appointments, particularly in regard to becoming Director; that story will come later. My appointment as Dean is more straightforward; obviously, there was need for change. The school needed to move forward, develop a full time program and consider accreditation; that was my task. To achieve these goals, I needed full authority; the Trustees agreed, particularly the school committee led by Carleton b. Swift, Jr. At this time, the overall restructuring of the Corcoran should be mentioned as the Trustees had appointed a Chief Executive Officer over the Director and Dean, now considered co-equals. At the time of becoming Dean in 1970, Aldus Chapin was CEO and Walter Hopps was Director. In all this change, more upheavals were to come.
As Dean, I worked with the faculty and staff to develop a full time program; a four year professional program was introduced that year, 1970. The following year, in April 1971, the Corcoran School of Art was admitted as a Division III member of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. In all this activity not only had I the support of the faculty but also Peter Thomas who acted as Associate Dean and Dean. On my departure in 1977, he was appointed Dean of the School. Peter Thomas is a dedicated educator and fine artist; he was responsible for the day to day operation of the school when I became Director. I can not express my debt of gratitude to Peter and his wife, Addice, who became my secretary and assistant. Moreover, Peter was an outstanding graphic designer and became responsible for the publications of the school and gallery; admirable indeed. Addice and Peter remain good friends; visiting them in Virginia is always a delight, as is seeing daughter Alicia.
As with any institution, success is due to the efforts and support of many people: trustees, staff, faculty, volunteers, patrons and friends. I regard myself as a conductor of an orchestra or a coach of a sports team; I am dependent on my players. At the Corcoran, Peter Thomas thinks my greatest accomplishment was getting the school fully accredited; that occurred in October 1976. I left for Cranbrook the succeeding year. The school catalogs of that time, in the 70’s, are read by me with nostalgia. Much of the writing seems to be mine; reflecting the history of the school and the emergence of a full time accredited program: a tribute to the efforts and commitment of many fine individuals.
The Corcoran School of Art was founded toward the end of the last century. The possibility of the establishment of art school was first considered by the Board of Trustees in November 1873. In 1875, the Corcoran Gallery allowed students to draw and paint in the collection. Provisions for education with frequently considered and discussed by trustees. In 1884, W. W. Corcoran wrote, saying “How greatly such an education would contribute to the economic prosperity of our country as well as to the national reputation". The Corcoran School of Art was established in 1890, with a small building erected in the back of the old Renwick Gallery. When the gallery moved to 17th and New York Avenue in 1897, larger and better facilities were provided to the school. For many years students would draw from antiques in the basement. To my day, the basement of the gallery provided the main studio spaces. The implementation, in 1970, of a structured full-time program changed the nature of the school. The foundation course was the basis of the diploma program with the emphasis on individual development and achievement. First-year students studied together in the foundation program and continued to study together in the second year. Students were encouraged to expand their skills and begin to develop more personal questions and ideas. The foundation course was based upon the concept of team teaching that I had brought from Leeds College of Art. The faculty responded well to this concept of team teaching and intense involvement with the basics of art and design.
The resulting diploma program was accredited in 1973, with a letter from the President of the National Association of schools of Art (NASA), saying “You and your colleagues are to be congratulated on the very fine progress that the Corcoran School of Art realized in the three years just transpired while in Division I candidacy status, and on the fact that you were able to achieve full accredited status in less than the usual five years of candidacy.”
Of course, I was delighted with full membership in NASA of which, for the past years, I had been an active member. In October 1975, the Corcoran School of Art acted as host for the annual conference of the Association; this was the first time that the annual conference had met in Washington, DC. An active program dealing with governments and the arts, funding and marketing, and collective bargaining was presented to the delegates. At the same time, many visits were made to numerous cultural institutions of Washington. To this day, my colleagues tell me that they remember that conference with delight and pleasure. Of course, as director of the gallery, I was able to host my academic colleagues in the splendor of the atrium and museum; a fine impression was made upon deans and presidents from throughout the country. An address was read from the Vice President of the United States, Nelson Rockefeller in which he stated, “You can take great pride in your many accomplishments and arts education. Your dedication to the highest standards has been invaluable in encouraging quality higher education for artists and designers.”
Another aspect of the school, with which I was particularly proud, was the visiting artist program. Artists, dealers, authors and scholars were invited to speak and work with students throughout the year. The advantage of the school being under the same roof as the gallery brought many benefits. One of my first acts, as Dean and Director, was to open the interior door between school and gallery; allowing easy access to the collections and exhibitions. To study original works of art is critical in educating students. The exhibiting artists and their work greatly enriched the education offered by the school. Full time students were members of the gallery “the liveliest place in town” and encouraged to participate in its activities and events. During my tenure, visiting artists included Carl Andre, Jennifer Bartlett, John Elderfield, Walker Evans, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Friedlander, Al Held, Robert Irwin, Lee Krasner, Sol LeWitt, Dennis Oppenheim, Larry Poons, Martin Puryear, Dorothea Rockburne, Alma Thomas, Anne Truitt, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselman, Robert Wilson; to name a few. The program ensured a continuing flow of diverse and stimulating ideas for students and faculty; encouraging the process of learning.
On of the fun things for me personally was to work in the studio with the students. I would get involved in the foundation course; teaching basic design, color theory and practice being a favorite, To work with a life model, with unusual settings, movement and music was always fun. Of course, those were the days when I was Dean, the opportunities became less as Director; although I always tried to talk and keep in touch with students; the artists of tomorrow.
In my early years at the school, students were encouraged to do innovative work; individually and as groups. One student wrapped a Volkswagen in aluminum foil; the silver car caused consternation parked across the street from the gallery; the White House in the background. Even greater anxiety occurred when a student sprinkled sugar around the trees next to the Executive Building. The Park Police came out to investigate; nonplussed by the students desire to create an art work of a circle of ants! On another occasion, a group of students created fantasy costumes: colorful masks and flowing fabrics; animal like figures with tails and horns; tall towering apparitions; futuristic forms from another galaxy. The fanciful and fantastic parade that spilled out from the school into the streets was a wondrous sight to behold. Government workers, tourists and vendors gawked in awe and disbelief; as usual, the police looked bemused but apprehensive. My favorite was a sculpture; an inflatable and transparent tube, 30 feet long. The heating system that the Corcoran then shared with the White House was used to inflate the work; the only time that all that hot air has been put to good use?!
The Corcoran Gallery and School are located in the center of the nation’s capitol. The founder, William Wilson Corcoran, had three buildings surrounding the White House. As a financier, he helped found the Corcoran & Riggs Bank, located on one corner. Across Lafayette Park, on the corner of Seventeenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, was the site of the original Gallery. Although founded in 1859, the first gallery, designed by James Renwick, first opened in 1871. A gala ball, attended by President Ulysses Grant, was held to raise funds for the Washington Monument. The inauguration, as an art gallery, occurred on January 19, 1874. (The story of the founder and early history of the gallery is to be found in the publication “Corcoran”, published in 1976. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 76-457).
When W.W. Corcoran died in 1888, at the age of eighty-nine, he was recognized throughout the country as a great benefactor. With the formation of his collection and gallery, he created one of the great collections of American painting and sculpture and an institution without precedent in American art. His art gallery was the first in our capitol and the third oldest in the nation. In 1891, the Trustees decided to acquire land for a new building for the growing needs of the gallery and school. The present site on Seventeenth Street and New York Avenue, across from the White House, was purchased that April. The building, with facilities for the expanding school and more galleries, was designed by Ernest Flagg. The inauguration, attended by President Grover Cleveland, was on February 22, 1897. A local wag remarked that the buildings of Mr. Corcoran, a Southern sympathizer, had effectively surrounded the White House.
On the Flagg edifice, a frieze runs across the top of the façade. The names of famous artists are carved in stone: “Phidias, Giotto, Durer, Michelangelo, Raphael, Velasquez, Rubens, Reynolds, Allston and Ingres”. The frieze became known as “Who’s Who in Art and who is Allston?” Washington Allston (1779-1843) was a highly respected American painter in his time; today known only by scholars. His name is carved instead of a more famous artist, evident in the original drawing, but Allston is the only American so honored. His name remains, forever, in high places in our nation’s capitol.
The original Gallery building of 1871 was sold to the government in 1901. Much later, in 1972, after considerable restoration, the building was renamed after the architect and opened as the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, to show American decorative arts, crafts and design. On the façade of both buildings, the Renwick and the Corcoran, are the initials “WWC” and the phrase “Dedicated to Art”; a fitting tribute to the founder.
The location of the Corcoran, across from the White House, in the heart of our nation’s capital has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is the abundance of cultural institutions available; an ongoing and ever growing resource and enrichment for students and artists. During the 70’s our nation’s capital became a cultural capital; this phenomena has been written about and referred to elsewhere on this website. In my lecture at the Ringling Museum of Art (under ‘Corcoran’), I refer to “the opening of the East Wing of the National Gallery; the Kennedy Center; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture; The National Collection of Fine Arts; the Air Space Museum; Arena Stage” joining with the Corcoran; Phillips Gallery; and the vast treasures and many museums of the Smithsonian. What an extraordinary and unique opportunity to enjoy and study art.
For artists, the location offered opportunity. In the late 60’s, Barnett Newman placed his sculpture “Obelisk” on the grass outside the Corcoran; on the corner of New York Avenue and Seventeenth Street. The inverted and broken obelisk, placed on a pyramid, point to point, was large, impressive and a seminal work by Newman. The sculpture was in corten steel; one of these works is on view at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, another was shown in 2006 in the new atrium of the Museum of Modern Art, NYC. In 1968, I was present as the artist, as dapper as ever, watched the installation of this huge sculpture. Traffic and pedestrians came to a halt, gazing in wonderment, as a big crane lifted the obelisk and balanced the point on the tip of the pyramid; then secured safely. The work was not understood nor appreciated by the general public. On one occasion, I was getting out of a taxi, when the driver berated me, “What is that awful thing?!” I replied that the obelisk was a traditional form, like the pyramid; of no avail, the driver still muttered. “You know”, I said, “The Washington Monument is an obelisk”. The taxi driver was even more outraged, “That’s sacred; it’s the monument to our nation’s founding father!”
In the early 70’s, the sculpture “Adam” by Alexander Lieberman was installed on the same corner, and, again, not appreciated. President Nixon was outraged and demanded the offensive abstraction be removed. For some odd reason, the grounds and grass around the Corcoran were under the authority of the National Parks Service. The sculpture was removed; banished to Haines Point on the Potomac. The gigantic work, bright red with swirling forms, could be clearly seen when landing at National Airport. Moreover, the abstract sculpture was clearly visible from the river. Michael Straight, former Deputy Director of the NEA, writes, in his autobiography, that President Nixon was cruising in the Presidential Yacht “Sequoia” and saw the sculpture; he became even more outraged, how ironic.
Corcoran News. November 30, 1972.
For release 4.00 PM.
The board of trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art has accepted the resignation of both Mr. Vincent Melzac, Chief Executive Officer, and Mr. Gene Baro, Director of the Gallery. Effective immediately.
The trustees have named Mr. Roy Slade, Dean of the Art School, to the position of Director of the Gallery in addition to his position as Dean.
Mr. George E. Hamilton, Jr., President of the Board, will appoint a committee of the Board of Trustees and Governors to commence an immediate search for a new Director of the gallery.
The Trustees announced that under the direction of Mr. Slade there will be no interruption of the exhibitions and the activities of the Gallery.
With this terse announcement, I became Director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Of course, there was much more to this story which was covered nationally with articles in the New York Times; Time; Newsweek; Art Gallery; Washington Star-News; the Washington Post; and many other periodicals.
In the Washington Star-News, the following day, Benjamin Forgey wrote that, “Chief Executive Officer Vincent Melzac and Director Gene Baro were dismissed yesterday from their jobs at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The dismissals resulted from a widely publicized altercation between the two men at an invitational opening at the Corcoran a month ago. The fight between Melzac and Baro occurred on November 3 at about 10:30 p.m. in the Corcoran Atrium in the presence of about 200 guests invited to an opening that night. Melzac’s and Baro’s accounts of the fight differ widely except on one point: Melzac hit Baro in the head with his fist and opened a cut that required five stitches. Baro says the attack was unprovoked. Melzac, in a statement released yesterday, says he struck the director in self defense. The Board appointed Roy Slade, dean of the Corcoran Art School as director of the Gallery on a temporary basis. ‘Mr. Slade accepted this assignment reluctantly and as a favor to the Gallery’, commented George E. Hamilton Jr. President of the Board. During the past five years there have been two chief executives and four directors of the Gallery.”
In the Washington Post, Paul Richards wrote that “….their working relationship was shattered four weeks ago when the two men were involved in a bizarre altercation that astonished a black tie opening-night audience and left Baro, in his own words, bleeding ‘like a stuck pig’”. In this article, Friday, December 1, 1972, is a detailed account of the fight which occurred over the two men being photographed with an artist. Even more graphic is the story in the Art Gallery Magazine of January 1973 which gives details of the fight and comments on the fact that Melzac was smaller than Baro, who claims that he was cut by Melzac’s ring, which the assailant denied. The fight brought much adverse press, particularly as Baro allowed himself to be photographed, with blood streaming from his cut eye onto his white dress shirt and tuxedo. The damning picture appeared in the Post, Times and Newsweek; causing the resignations of both men.
In an article in Newsweek, February 1973, “Crisis at the Corcoran”, the issue off dual leadership in museums was brought into focus. Obviously, such duality had not worked at the Corcoran. Fortunately, during my tenure, I was in complete control as a director and, in effect, was also acting as chief executive officer. However, I was facing mounting problems; as Art Gallery magazine stated, “Roy Slade will attempt to hold the lid down on the most explosive situation in the American museum world”.
Obviously, with two chief executives and four directors during five years, there had been much upheaval and turmoil at the Corcoran; climaxing with the notorious fisticuffs. When I arrived in the summer of 1967, the director was Hermann Warner Williams Jr.; he served as director for 21 years: 1947-68. When Bill retired in 1968, the Trustees appointed a chief executive officer, Aldus Chapin, and a director, James Harithas. Jim served as director through 1969. Walter Hopps was appointed director 1970 to 1972; then Gene Baro served as director for a few months with Vincent Melzac as chief executive officer. The fist fight occurred in November 1972 and I became director.
Dual leadership with a chief executive officer over the director and dean did not work at Corcoran. Ever since then, I have consistently been outspoken in my opposition to dual leadership. The director must be the head of the art gallery; the person in charge and control. The notion that a business man can head a cultural institution is absurd. Who do you wish to see conducting an orchestra; certainly not the accountant but the conductor who conducts and leads? In the art museum, the same is true and the director does just that: directs! Most crucial is that the director has a good eye, with the ability to manage, administer and lead the institution. To be fiscally responsible, understand budgets and raise funds are other necessary attributes. The director must direct, decide and delegate. Again, overriding all else, the astute vision and aesthetic judgment of the director are what will define an art museum.
Although their tenure was brief, each Corcoran director had their own distinctive eye. Jim Harithas presented some extraordinary and expensive exhibitions; as did his successor, Walter Hopps. Jim Harithas was assistant director when, in 1967, the curator of contemporary art, Eleanor Sue Green, organized the exhibition “Scale as Content”. Two enormous sculptures were installed in the atrium of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in October 1967. I had the privilege of watching these two massive works in progress of installation. The works were “X” by Ronald Bladen which filled the north side of the atrium; while in the south was the sculpture “Smoke” by Tony Smith. “Smoke” is made of black painted aluminum; 22 feet high, 45 feet long and 33 foot wide. A photograph of the work, with a diminutive Tony Smith, appeared on the cover of Time magazine October 13, 1967. The magazine article reported that Smith had, “discarded modeling clay in favor of blueprints, the chisel in favor of the welding torch”. Recently, in the New York Times of February 1, 2008, a new photograph of the sculpture appears; now installed in the atrium leading into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The director, Michael Govan, is quoted as saying, “It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful.”
Having seen the work installed at the Corcoran forty one years ago, I would agree. The other installation was by Bladen: the towering structure “X”; made in wood, a skeletal structure covered with wood panels, painted black. To see the scaffolding and structure emerge in the atrium was memorable; and remains so to this day. Barnett Newman installed “Broken Obelisk” on the outside corner of the Corcoran. The installation of this work has been referred to earlier; another memorable moment. Seeing these works installed and meeting the artists was an exciting beginning to my time at the Corcoran. These important works had a lasting impact and impression on those fortunate to see these works; particularly young artists. For me, the works were truly American in both concept and creation; the sheer scale and vast volume of the sculptures were awe inspiring.
As director, James Harithas, 35 years old, presented the Thirty First Biennial in February 1969. He dispensed with the traditional jury, appointing himself as sole arbiter and judge. Rather than an eclectic overview, with paintings hang cheek to jowl, he wanted to show a cross section of what was happening in American painting. Jim selected 22 artists, each with their own gallery. The Biennial reflected the radical change that Harithas wished to bring to the old Corcoran. From jazz concerts to the enormous sculptures, the change was obvious, as was the neglect of the collections. After a tumultuous year, Harithas was replaced by Walter Hopps, director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. Harithas was admired for his innovative exhibitions and commitment to avant garde; as was his successor Walter Hopps. Neither Jim nor Walter were the best of administrators, particularly budget wise?
Before the Corcoran, Walter Hopps became director, in 1962, of the Pasadena Museum of Art (now the Simon Norton Museum). He mounted the first museum retrospectives of Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell, and Marcel Duchamp. After the Corcoran, Hopps went to the Menil Collection, becoming director in 1980; later he was curator. In his obituary for Walter Hopps, published in the Washington Post, March 22, 2005, Paul Richard wrote: “Most museum men are smooth. Walter Hopps wasn’t. He was a sort of gonzo museum director—elusive, unpredictable, outlandish in his range, jagged in his vision, heedless of rules…….”right until the end Hopps was searching out unfamiliar artists of exceptional accomplishment. He may have been the finest art scout of his age.” The writer mentions artists that Hopps encouraged: Kienholz, Ruscha, Stella and Warhol; while in DC: Gilliam, McGowin, Davis and Christenberry. “Hopps would often work for three days without a break, and then disappear for the same amount of time. When he was working at the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts, his boss Joshua C. Taylor was sometimes heard to say, ‘If I could find him, I’d fire him.’ But of course he didn’t”.
Paul Richard goes on to write, “I still have the button somewhere. The size of a half-dollar, with white words on a black background, it was commissioned by his staff with only half a smile. It says: ‘Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes.’ Which meant, of course, he wouldn’t. Hours, sometimes days, would pass before one heard his low, rich voice, often on the phone in the middle of the night. It was always worth the wait. He was the best art talker I have ever heard. He mesmerized. He taught.”
Walter Hopps presented, in 1970, an ambitious and awesome exhibition: that was on the architecture and work of Paolo Soleri. The Gallery had to be closed for months with Soleri’s assistants living and working in the Gallery. The expense was too much for the limited finances of the Corcoran; but Walter was not the most practical of people. He was known for never being in his office; the rumor was that he conducted his business with calls from phone booths. Walter was rarely punctual and had a disdain for mundane practicalities. Nevertheless, he had had a remarkable eye; admirable perceptions; and a dedication to the unpredictable in art. Walter is held in admiration and awe by those that knew him; he had about him a certain mystique. His discerning eye and commitment supported and furthered the career of many artists.
(In this internet age, endless information is available. I have refreshed my memory through selective use of Google; often overwhelming and indiscriminate in the sheer volume of entries and facts. However, I confirmed some facts, learnt some more and found such items as the obituary for Walter Hopps. What I have tried to give in my writings are some personal reminisces and insights. For an aspiring writer, much more is to be researched and yet to be written?)
I was grateful to Hopps because he installed my show at the Jefferson Place Gallery in 1969. At that time, I benefitted from his remarkable eye and visual sensitivity as he was kind enough to arrange my paintings. Of course, I had to wait for him and drive him to the gallery. The installation was completed just in time; an elegant and thoughtful presentation, thanks to Walter. However, his tenure as Corcoran director was brief: 1970-72. The stay of his successor, Gene Baro, was ever shorter, a few months, ending with that bloody cut.
As an artist, I admired these directors: Harithas, Hopps and Baro. Each was very different in attitude and appearance; yet all shared a commitment to art, artists and the avante garde. Harithas was pugilistic in his mannerisms, aggressive but affable. Jim was intense, at times brash; sincere in his commitment to artists that interested and intrigued him. A non stop talker, cigarette in hand, his glasses glistening, he would harangue the listener with imaginative ideas and challenging concepts; his was a style of confrontation.
On the other hand, as has been said, Walter Hopps was elusive but eloquent. His quiet intensity and insightful knowledge were spellbinding; indeed, he was a teacher. Tall and slim, with wavy black hair and horn rimmed glasses, Walter could be a charmer with commanding presence.
Gene Baro also was commanding in his presence: large and rotund, filling any room, Orson Welles like in appearance and gesture. Baro could have been an actor, having a fine sense of speech and gesture; he was a painter, poet and an anglophile. He and I became friends. As director, in 1972, Gene Baro presented a group of my paintings in one of the galleries of the Corcoran known as the ‘Washington Room’. The sculptor, Anne Truitt, had her work on view in that gallery at the same time; for me, a rare honor, thanks to Gene. I owed him a debt of gratitude.
I invited him to act as guest curator during my tenure as director. I also asked Bill Williams to serve as director emeritus; the board agreed with both of these decisions. Bill fulfilled his obligation to complete the two volumes of the Corcoran Collection; working closely with curator Dorothy Phillips. Many names come to mind as I look back at my ten years in the Corcoran; as teacher, dean and director. Too many names to mention, even to remember, but I am grateful to all those that helped me, particularly staff, artists, volunteers and board members. Without their support, I would not have been able to fulfill my responsibilities and aspirations at the Corcoran.
“Over the years the Corcoran was governed by nine trustees who met annually at the Metropolitan club. From 1873 until 1968, the art gallery had only five directors. The trustees decided to reorganize the Corcoran appointing a chief executive officer over the director of the gallery and dean of the school. From 1968 to 1972, in four years, the Corcoran had two CEO’s and five directors! Bill Williams retired in 1968 after 21 years, then there were Harithas, Hopps, Baro and me! “
I had been made Dean of the school in 1970. Obviously, the Corcoran’s administrative structure was fraught with difficulties and tension which escalated into a public fistfight at a black-tie opening. The chief executive officer, Vincent Melzac, struck the director, Gene Baro, in the face, cutting open a wound with his ring. Baro made the mistake of having a photograph taken which was then published in the New York Times and Newsweek. The photograph of the bloody director was stark evidence that not all was well at the Corcoran. The chairman of the board said to Mr. Baro, “you have brought dishonor on my house”. Both Melzac and Baro were fired and, in November 1972, I was appointed director of the gallery. By working hard with trustees, staff and volunteers of the Corcoran, I helped to restore morale, fiscal stability and the reputation of the Corcoran Gallery and School by the time I left in 1977.”
I made this statement in my Corcoran lecture at the Ringling. In the chapter ‘Director’, I quote from newspaper accounts of the infamous fight that led to my appointment as Director of the Corcoran. I have told the story of that evening but I have never written down my account of that event and my appointment as director; until now. 02/17/08 RS.
Gene Baro, Washington Post photograph by Herdon. Reproduced in publications, incuding 'Newsweek' article February 26, 1973 article "Corcoran in Crisis"............
Acting director Roy Slade says "I took on this horrendous job to insure the Corcoran's survival......."
The Corcoran Gallery of Art hosted a black tie reception on the evening of Friday, November 3, 1972. The occasion was to celebrate the opening of a major exhibition, “Sam Francis: Paintings 1947-72”; also previewing were the paintings of Sally Hazelet Drummond and drawings by Philip Wofford..
I had invited Don Bonham to be a visiting artist at the school. Don was a Canadian artist and was known for being outrageous; in his work and behavior. Nevertheless, I knew him as a friend and he was staying with me as my houseguest. Although he did not have a tuxedo, I invited him to the opening that evening; on the condition that he would least wear black jacket and tie. Reluctantly, Don did so but, naturally, wore his brown leather cowboy boots. I stressed that he was to behave himself.
During the evening, I walked the galleries, through the crowds who are enjoying the exhibitions and reception. As usual, there were bars, liquor and fancy food. I saw Vincent Melzac and his wife; he seemed agitated. He mentioned that he had had a disagreement with the director Gene Baro about who should be photographed with the artist, Sally Drummond. As Baro had organized the exhibition, Gene felt that he was the person who should be with the artist. Vincent Melzac disagreed; he was the chief executive officer and felt he and his wife should to be included in the photograph. Over such a trivial issue, the argument started, ending in the fisticuffs. Ironically, my museum career began with a dispute over” Who should be photographed with the artist?”!
In addition, Melzac seemed upset that people were not paying attention to his wife, busty and blonde, in a glittering silver dress. Melzac has been described as a larger than life figure. He was that with the rumor being that he was under investigation for fraudulent advertising of his beauty saloons; who knows? What is certain: he was an avid collector of artists of the Washington Color School. He had a reputation for striking a hard bargain with painters, who disliked him but needed his money. The Vincent Melzac Collection was shown at the CIA and the Smithsonian. Melzac was short and flashy; he owned a catfish farm in West Virginia. He was a strange person to be running the Corcoran but his collection was coveted? I left him to return to my friends.
At the bottom of the grand staircase I was talking to Dom Bonham and a few friends. Suddenly, in open mouth amazement, Dom looked over my shoulder. He glared at me and demanded, “Is that how you want me to behave?”
I looked behind me to see Gene Baro, blood streaming from his eye on to his white tuxedo shirt. Melzac was storming off with his wife. Gene stammered, “I think Melzac has gone to get a gun. I am going to lock myself in my office”. I realized that with this altercation, I was basically now in charge, as I was the senior administrator left in the gallery. I immediately went to the head of security and told him the situation. I instructed him to quietly end the reception and close down the gallery; he was responsible for the rest of the evening. I left the gallery not knowing that Gene was in his office being photographed. That image of Baro, with his cut eye and bloody shirt, would be his downfall.
I went with Don Bonham to the home of dear friends. I stayed there, returning home in the early hours of the morning; refusing to take any phone calls. I did not want to talk to the press; sometimes silence is golden. Besides which I had little to say, as I never witnessed the bloody confrontation, which place behind my back! To this day, I wonder whether any of the blood splattered on to the paintings of Sam Francis; one would never know?
I remember the next day that Gene Davis had a one-man show in a local gallery. I went to see the exhibition and poor Gene was muttering that nobody was interested in his paintings; wishing only to talk about the fight at the Corcoran.
As a friend, I visited that Saturday evening with Gene Baro at his home in Georgetown. I took him two steaks; one for his eye and one to eat! He talked of the altercation that had occurred, literally and physically behind my back. Gene concurred that the argument started, in a gallery, over who should be photographed with the artist. He and Melzac went their own ways; that is when I saw Melzac. Later, at the foot of the grand stairs, Vincent again confronted Baro; this time he was angered that his wife had not been photographed. Gene was holding a drink and told me that Melzac made a gesture, knocking Gene’s arm. Inadvertently, Gene’s drink splashed on the dress of Melzac’s wife. Vincent struck out at Baro, a much larger man, and cut Gene’s eye, apparently with a signet ring. That was the story I was told; other versions appeared in the press. Whatever is true, the reality is that, over this absurd altercation, both men lost their jobs and I became a museum director!
On the following, Monday the gallery staff was in disarray. Mr. David Lloyd Kreeger appeared to calm the situation. David was a member of the new and expanded board of the Corcoran; no longer were there just the ‘nine old men’. The board expanded and included women as members of the board of trustees; also formed was a new group of governors, representing the gallery and school. David Lloyd Kreeger was the heir apparent and was to become president of the board. He reassured Gene Baro that he would continue as director.
However, George E. Hamilton Jr. was still president and was of the old school; a respected lawyer and elderly gentleman. He had been on a cruise at the time of the fight. When he returned, he was disturbed and angered by the notorious altercation in his gallery. The photograph of a bloodied Gene Baro, published in the national press, was particularly offensive to him. As I have stated, he felt that the combatants had “brought dishonor on his house”. Accordingly both Melzac and Baro were fired; or, let us say, their resignations were accepted.
The Board of Trustees executive committee met at the home of George Hamilton. I was asked to attend this meeting of November 30. Mr. Hamilton discussed the seriousness of the situation; he complemented on my success in running the school. Corcoran Thom, visibly angered by the situation, agreed and commented that as I was doing such a good job running the school then I should you run the gallery. I was dumbfounded and said that I would serve as the Board wished. I do remember that Corcoran Thom said the board was considering asking me to be director. Further, he clarified that if they did decide to do that, I would not be acting nor interim director. The situation was far too serious, particularly financially; if I was to be invited to take over the gallery, it would be as director. At the same time, they would instigate a search for the director. I remember this vaguely as the meeting was a blur to me at that time; and is now! I was confounded and confused, again pledging to act in the best interests of the Corcoran and at the discretion of the board. With that comment, I left the meeting.
Outside Mr. Hamilton's house, Paul Richard of the Washington Post, was waiting, hiding in the bushes. He had heard from a staff member about this meeting and was anxious to scoop the story. He asked what was happening; all I could say was that I told the board that I would continue to serve at their pleasure.
Later that evening, I heard from my friend, Benjamin Forgey of the Washington Star; he had written a story about my appointment as a director. He had a copy of the press release. Ironically, the Board of Trustees never called me to confirm that I was director; I read about it in the newspaper!
Ben Forgey "Washington Star-News" November 30,1972.
MY FIVE YEARS
I was to be director of the gallery while a search committee was formed and an intensive search did occur. Candidates came in to meet with trustees and be interviewed for the position I held. After a six-month search, the trustees decided to appoint me director but I was already director! Accordingly, I did serve as director of the Corcoran for five years, from November 1972 through July 1977.
Corcoran Gallery of Art: lower atrium reinstallation: sculpture and paintings from the American Collection 1974.
This photograph, in black and white, was printed in the 'Wasnington Star-News' with an article by Ben Forgey, headline "Come, Praise The Corcoran's New-Old Look". September 18, 1974.
During the five years that I served as director, I emphasized the Corcoran’s collection of American painting and sculpture; Washington Art; and contemporary American art. Working with limited the funds, I had to be ingenious and frugal in the exhibitions that I presented; but a lively program was sustained. However I was most proud of my commitment to the collection. The story of finding that collection in storage is fully told in the lecture “The American Collection” presented at the Ringling (qv); an extract follows:
“As I have said, when appointed director, I toured the galleries and found masterworks, both paintings and sculpture, laying in storage, neglected and abandoned. In 1974, with an NEA grant, the paintings and sculptures were installed chronologically in 12 galleries, previously boarded-up. These galleries were of beautiful proportion with wooden floors, gorgeous ceilings and mutated skylights, an elegant setting for Mr. Corcoran's collection. The installation was called “The American Collection” and I was hailed as “an American scholar” by the New York Times. I knew little about American Art of that time but as Bill Williams told me, “few people do”! ………..Much was written on the installation. My favorite quote is from the critic Frank Getlein who said, “It is all at the Corcoran and if you are an American you have to go there to begin to understand yourself. But what ever you are, the Corcoran's collection is the best readily available summary of a new country, a new mind, new vision……..”
The American Collection, upper galleries installation c1973.
My tenure remains a blur of frenzied and hectic activity; I can offer only offer a montage of memories. The Annual Reports of the Corcoran Gallery of Art give facts and figures. In my possession, being responsible for their publication, I have reports 1974-75 and 1975-76. The first of these deals retroactively with 1970-74. That summary starts with my understatement: “The first year of the seventies saw many changes in personnel and programs at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.” and concludes: ”Activities and events of this period were numerous, as were the changes in personnel, for the Corcoran continued to reassess its role, particularly within the changing community.”
As I think back to those early months as director, I realize how overwhelmed, initially, I was with the task. However, a job had to be done and decisions made; now I was in charge. One of my first tasks was to bring together the gallery and school; to restore morale; and give clear leadership. I had a photograph taken to include in the ‘Calendar of Events’ January 1973. The photograph shows me surrounded by the entire Corcoran family. The gallery had 97 employees. The school had 61 faculty, 21 staff and over 1000 students. I stated that the gallery and school were “all together". The photograph was important for many reasons: most of all to emphasize that now the Corcoran was as one entity; with one director.
Of my many issues, one of the most pressing was to reduce the number of staff and eliminate the unnecessary duplication of tasks in gallery and school. In doing this, I could immediately cut back our expenditures and begin attempting to balance the budget. The finances were in a bad way; with extravagant expenditures, particularly recent exhibitions, eroding the already small endowment. To cut back costs; raise funds; balance the budget; increase the endowment became the mantra that I shared with most museum directors; unfortunately not my predecessors at the Corcoran!
Another matter to be addressed was the fact that everybody seemed to use the title “director” I decided that there was to be only ONE director now and that was me! All other titles that used to the word “director” (from personnel to janitorial services) would to be changed. I've always thought that both in education and museums there is a poverty of language in regard to staff titles; administrators flounder around struggling for titles. No one wants to be a secretary any longer. Everyone wants some grand title? In comparison to the military, with clearly defined ranks and titles, the museum world exists in a confusion of titular semantics and responsibilities? Of course, I did not help the matter by taking the title director and retaining my authority as dean. In later years, directors began to assume the title of president or chief executive officer or executive director. To this day, I think that the title “director” should suffice to describe the head of the museum.
Another matter that was confusing and needing clarification was how the visitor moved around the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The problem had been made worse by the addition of the Clark Wing. In 1925, the trustees accepted the bequest of the late senator from Montana, William Andrews Clark, of his collection of art. The gift contained many fine works by European artists, along with sculpture, tapestries and antiques. The Clark Wing was built to house the collection and was inaugurated in 1928. A few years later, to define more precisely the artistic orientation of the gallery, the trustees adopted a resolution reaffirming the emphasis of the gallery on American Art.
The Clark Collection and Wing caused problems not only in the mission of the gallery but in the circulation of visitors. In the original Flagg building, visitors viewed the art in the lower galleries and then went up the grand stairs. Even then, at halfway, the stairs divided with two separate stairs going to the upper galleries. With the addition of the Clark Wing, an elegant rotunda was built at the halfway landing of the grand staircase. Visitors were confused as to whether the go into the rotunda or up whichever staircase to the upper atrium. The Corcoran had to come to terms with this dilemma of direction; both of the visitor and with the art of Europe and America.
The first problem to be dealt with was to give visitors some guidance. To do this a floor plan and map of the Corcoran was devised and designed by Peter Thomas. As I have said, Peter was not only Dean of the School, responsible for day to day operations, but was also a very fine graphic designer. On taking over, I realized that the many Corcoran publications were of a different size, typeface and design. I made the decision to standardize all publications to be the same size, with distinctive graphics, creating a house style. In this way, all Corcoran publications could be easily identified. Peter Thomas readily agreed and set about designing the graphics for the Corcoran. Throughout the years, his fine graphic design of publications and catalogs greatly enhanced the image of the Corcoran; serving both school and gallery.
I also dealt with the issue of labeling throughout the gallery. Early in my tenure, my beloved mother MIlla, asked me the simple question, “Why are these works on the wall?!” I had hung a group of photographs of the late 19th century, showing Lewis and Clark's explorations in the West. However, no introductory label or any information put these works within context. I was guilty of the usual curatorial arrogance that assumes every visitor knows why the work is hanging on the wall. My mother’s question remained with me throughout my career; indeed to this very day. Why is the art on view?
Although, I've never wanted to explain away the wonder and awe of art, I realized that there had to be an attempt to put the art within context. Texts were made to introduce the art on the walls or, with sculpture, on the floors. The purpose was to give information to the viewer on the selection of the art and, in the labels, more on the artist, media and date. Art is not to be diminished by simplistic dribble or scholarly diatribe but let us inform and educate the visitor through art within the museum. Nowadays, that debate on didactic presentation rages on amongst directors and curators; many articles and books have been written. In those early days as director, my simple attempt was to provide information and guidance for the visitor.
I have always thought of myself as an educator. To embrace, be involved and committed to fulfilling the educational role of the Corcoran had been an obvious transition for me, coming from school to gallery. The mission of the art museum in America is one of education. I was to become an outspoken advocate for education in museums. For many years, I served at as the chairman of the education committee for the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). Much more is to be written on education and museums,
Another issue that I dealt with was that of the ‘Washington Room’. This gallery was dedicated to showing Washington artists and, indeed, I had been proud to be included in that installation by Gene Baro. Nevertheless, I began to realize that the ‘Washington Room’ separated local artists from the mainstream of America art. Artists of the stature of Morris Louis and Ken Noland were certainly major American artists and would no longer be separated out? At the same time, every effort was made to encourage new and emerging local artists through gallery shows; group exhibitions; and juried area shows. The founder, WW Corcoran, had always wished to encourage Washington artists and did so, not only through his gallery and school, but with his patronage of artists themselves.
Many of my decisions were to make order out of chaos; to give a sense of order and direction. After all, that is the responsibility of the director: ‘direction, decision, delegation’. With a sense of order and assurance of authority, potential donors feel secure with their giving; particularly if the museum appears dedicated to excellence. To do this, the museum must rely upon its collections; define its mission; and present a lively and informative program of exhibitions and education. Through the reinstallation of our American paintings and sculpture, named “The American Collection”, I fulfilled our founder’s desire:” to promote and encourage the American Genius”. Further, through an ongoing and never ending schedule of exhibitions, the Corcoran continued to encourage artists.
Looking back at those days in the 70’s, I realize how frenzied and ridiculous the schedule was, as exhibitions lasted for only six weeks! Even worse, up to five shows would open at the same time; lunacy. That hectic schedule was what I inherited; I never thought to change that frantic pace until later. As director, I was responsible for this insanity but, at the time, the Corcoran earned its reputation as being “the liveliest place in town”! Moreover, the press and publicity brought attention and support to the Corcoran; through membership, gifts and donations. May be there was method to this madness; with a dedicated staff and limited resources, much was achieved. I managed ‘to beg and borrow’ in order to present these numerous and endless exhibitions. As director of a private museum, I turned to individuals, endowments and corporations; the Corcoran was the first to get corporate sponsorship in the federal capital. At the time, government funded federal museums did not seek corporate sponsors; that soon changed. The advantages for the corporations and their lobbyists were considerable in giving a reception at the Corcoran, in the heart of the nation’s capital. Funds were given for exhibitions and events by major corporations from Phillip Morris to Exxon to CBS. I developed strong ties with Ruder & Finn; David Finn being a photographer with real interest in art. Naturally, the issue of renting out facilities was a matter of concern and one article had the headline “The Strain of Parties Tell” (Washington Post 02/25/73). I was the first director to be quoted; a spokesman for CBS said “guests would enjoy the riches of a fine art gallery”. Hopefully, that was true and guests would become visitors, even members; whatever, the Corcoran benefited from the riches of the corporate world!
President Jimmy Carter and Mrs Carter on an informal visit to the American Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1977.
Political parties were anxious to host parties at the Corcoran, situated across from the White House. Whether Republicans or Democrats, I was happy to take their money! In January 1977, we hosted the Democratic National Committee on the eve of the Inauguration of Jimmy Carter as President of the United States and Walter Mondale as Vice President. Years earlier, as Richard Nixon became President, we hosted the Republicans; Pat Nixon and the daughters came to the Corcoran on that occasion. Not only did we receive money for these events; the printed programs included material on the Corcoran. The democratic Chairman, Robert Strauss, wrote in 1977, “The Corcoran Gallery represents the best of American art from the past and a commitment to the latest trends and innovations. The following pages provide a modest guide to some of the works on display; the floor plan also indicates where refreshments are being served.”
Other sources of funding were eagerly sought. The National Endowment for the Arts was a patron of the arts, providing crucial and needed funding. I became to know and respect the work of Nancy Hanks, a Republican, and Joan Mondale, a democrat. Both were passionate and outspoken spokespeople and supporters of the arts; the nation owes them a debt of gratitude, I certainly do!
Private endowments are another potential source of funding. The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation was a generous supporter of the arts, particularly of the Corcoran; again critical, particularly for exhibitions. The Foundation gave a grant for the 34th Biennial that I presented. Of course, donors have to be courted and this was very true with Gwendolyn Cafritz. I first met her when I organized a three week program for Corcoran students in London and Paris during the summer of 1969. The widow, Mrs. Cafritz, was staying in London at Claridges; Colonel Myers was one her escorts. As Dean, he wanted me to join him for dinner at the famed club Annabel’s with Mrs. Cafritz; first we had drinks with the Duchess of Devonshire. What an evening and way to meet Mrs. Cafriz who became one of our major benefactors. Later, as director, at the many Corcoran events she attended, I was most solicitous of her.
Within the Corcoran itself, Trust funds had been established in 1921 and 1927 by the late Senator Cark and his widow; these funds also were invaluable. The Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art was most active and generous raising and giving funds towards exhibitions, publications and operations. Another group was The Friends of the Corcoran, established in 1961, to add significant works of art by contemporary artists to the collection. Acquisitions are critical to the ongoing growth of any collection; with publications, acquisitions can be the lasting legacy of the director.
However, when I first took over as Director, my first concern was with exhibitions rather than acquisitions. With the tumultuous turmoil and changing directors, there was no schedule or exhibitions planned for the coming months! In desperation, I turned to Gene Baro, asking’ “Where will I get exhibitions?” In his pleasant pomposity and with grand gesture, Gene replied, “My dear boy, do not worry about exhibitions, they fall out of the sky and slip under the door. The problem is not getting exhibitions, it is turning them away. Artists and dealers will be after you”. Gene was right and there was never a shortage of offers and ideas for exhibitions. Even with limited resources, thanks to inventive ingenuity and endless offerings, lively and varied exhibitions were presented over those five years.
In my first few months, I turned to Gene Baro for help as he was a friend and had some exhibitions in mind. With the consent of the Trustees and out of necessity, I had Gene serve as guest curator. In February 1973, Baro curated the Thirty Third Biennial “The Way of Color”; he also helped me with the exhibition “Lowell Nesbitt: The Flower Series”. This exhibition was important as the show was presented at the time of the Women’s Committee Ball; an annual fund raiser and a highlight of the Washington social scene. The ladies were delighted with the flower paintings of Lowell Nesbitt; personally, I think his best work. Certainly, the flowers seemed more appropriate for the Ball than his images of male nudes?
Increasingly, I became responsible for the choice of exhibitions, organized with curatorial assistant, Francis Fralin, and Registrar, Susan Grady. At the beginning, those two fine professionals were my only curatorial staff; with Anthony Blazys as Chief Preparator. Tony was indispensable; a Lithuanian with wavy hair, scruffy appearance, white gloves and heavy accent. Always, in the worst of crisis, he would shrug and say, “Don’t worry, it’ll be alright”; and it always was! Unlike the past, the shows were installed, lit and labeled on time; if there was a catalog that was ready for the opening.
To present exhibitions, I relied on my eye as an artist and my past experience. As a student, I had worked one summer at the National Museum of Wales. I became aware of what occurred behind the scenes. I was involved in the preparation of a juried show; handling work for viewing by the jurors; and assisting with the installation. Later, I was presenting exhibitions as part of my responsibilities as a teacher and lecturer. At Leeds College of Art, I became responsible for the gallery. As director of the gallery, I put on exhibitions; the most notable being a show of work by faculty titled “Past and Present”. For this exhibition, I selected a work from the faculty member’s student days in juxtaposition with a current work. With little money and some ingenuity, the exhibition became of great interest and was most informative, particularly for our students. During those years in the UK, I wrote art criticism for national publications and was very aware of contemporary art in galleries and museums. My past experience served me well. Due to the recent upheavals, the Corcoran was in dire straits with enormous challenges facing me; a fledgling and young museum director.
Robert Stackhouse: "Sleeping King Ascending" 1973 installation, upper atrium bridge, Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Obviously, I knew the artists of the community and could rely upon them as a source of exhibitions. Many were faculty members and were pleased to show their work; Ed McGowin; Bill Christenberry; Eric Rudd; Leon Berkowitz; Tom Green; Frank DiPerna; Mark Power; Robert Stackhouse; and Elliott Thompson. In addition, I brought the British artists Trevor Bell and Michael Tyzack; both of whom were teaching in the US. With the help of dealers, I was able to present to work of Hans Hoffman; Sonia Delaunay; Stanley William Hayter; Paul Jenkins; Robert Morris; Louise Nevelson; Ansell Adams; Milton Avery; Man Ray; Jules Olitski; Lee Krasner; Hans Namuth; Patrick Ireland; and many other artists in one person and group shows.
Dealers are always willing to be most cooperative with museums. Showing their artists is advantageous in every way; a museum exhibition improves and increases the prestige, provenance and price of the artists’ work. Often, for the cost of transportation, in many cases covered by the dealer, the work of a major artist was brought to the Corcoran. Naturally, in this gray area, there is sensitivity to possible conflict of interest between for profit galleries and non profit museums. Another sensitive issue was that of showing work from collectors. In any community, collections of art exist in private hands and are an ongoing resource when presenting exhibitions. Again, showing the work in a museum increases its value and worth. Museums have become extremely careful over the issues of commercial conflicts and dubious gifts. I will not go into this further, except to say that dealers and collectors were in invaluable resource during my tenure. To bring these artists and work to the museum meant that more people could view the work.
Mention must be made of the difference in attitude that I experienced in visiting art galleries. As a young student, I would go to London to visit museum and galleries. Walking in to a posh and plush art gallery, I felt so scruffy and unwelcome. The gallery assistants would look down their noses, regarding the struggling artist with distain. Manhattan and Soho were more welcoming and, of course, a dramatic change occurred when I became a museum director. In those years, indeed to this day, I realized how highly respected and widely known was the Corcoran. When told that I was director, people seem in awe and in reverent tones say, “Oh, THE Corcoran”! With dealers and their minions, such respect became obvious as I was welcomed warmly. Ushered in to the back room or office, I was offered coffee or sherry or whatever, as I looked at works of art brought forward for my viewing pleasure. Dealers were most gracious and cooperative; willing to work together for our mutual benefit. Dealers would have the advantage of showing their artists in a major museum whereas I had access to outstanding works of contemporary American art. Over the years, I made friendships that lasted through my years at the Corcoran and then Cranbrook, always of mutual benefit. Among the dealers that I knew in Manhattan were Leo Castelli; Andre Emmerich; Nancy Hoffman; Paula Cooper; Charlie Cowles. Once viewing had occurred and decisions made, a phone call would suffice to borrow work for show. With even more immediate access, in DC, I worked with Henri; Nesta Dorrance: Ramon Osuna; and Harry Lunn. As usual, there is a tale to be told of each of these fine dealers; suffice to say, they were an invaluable resource and good friends to the Corcoran and its director.
Over the years, the Corcoran had organized exhibitions of local artists. In 1974, seven years after the last show, called the Area Exhibition, artists invited to submit work for a juried show. The response was overwhelming with over 3,000 works submitted from an area within 100 miles of the gallery. Handling the staggering volume of work was done through the dedication of the gallery staff; particularly Richard Boardman, my Special Assistant, on loan for one year from the United States Information Agency. As with most of these reminisces, much more could be written on Richard; for the moment, suffice to say, his patience and efforts Iwere crucial to the organization of the show. James Pilgrim, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the sole juror. The former Chief Curator of the Corcoran, Jim had the ability, experience and knowledge to deal with this awesome task. Jim wrote. “I was stunned by the number of works submitted to the Area Exhibition and impressed by the diversity of sensibility and interest they represented”. From the 3,389 entries, he selected 57 paintings; 33 drawings; 35 prints; and 31 sculptures. For a museum to fairly represent and encourage local artists is an ongoing challenge; that was the intent and hope with the Nineteenth Area Exhibition.
Another issue was that women artists and minorities had been neglected. No women artists were included in the 1970 Biennial by Walter Hopps; resulting in a protest by feminists on the steps of the Corcoran. Their outrage was justified as many women had emerged as major artists and innovators within contemporary art. I made every effort to address this issue, not only through my exhibitions but with staff appointments. Among the exhibitions that were presented were one person shows of Joan Thorne; Enid Sandford; Pat Steir; Sheila Isham, Anne Truitt; Elleanor Dickinson; Joyce Tenneson Cohen; Jennie Lee Knight; Alma Thomas; and Helen Frankenthaler. At the time of the Bicentennial, Mimi Herbert created huge Bicentennial flags for the exterior and interior of the Corcoran.
Naturally, dealing with the community meant dealing with minorities: the Afro-American community which was the majority in the District of Columbia. In Anacostia there was a fine program encouraging arts in the community; outstanding artists lived and worked within the city. Sam Gilliam; Ed Love; Lou Stovall; Alma Thomas; and Franklin White were among the artists who had exhibitions of their work at the Corcoran during my tenure. Recently, I saw Sam Gilliam in Tampa and we reminisced about the old days. Sam and I were teaching in the Saturday program at the Corcoran; we needed the money! We became good friends, being the same age and both abstract painters; Sam was, and is, one of the best painters that I have known. Sam and I came from such different backgrounds; I was a Blitz kid while he came from Mississippi. We had both suffered but in different ways, yet we had endured and overcome hardship and hatred. Sam and I shared not only a passion for painting but also for the Washington Redskins. Our friends, including Ben Forgey and Bill Christenberry, were also ‘Skins fan; many an argument and story came from watching the ‘Skins games together on TV. On a more serious note, I did exhibit Sam Gilliam’s work both at Corcoran and Cranbrook; on of the most notable occasions was at the Biennial.
Among the endless exhibitions, there are many memories. I was most proud of the 34th Biennial of Contemporary American Painting, presented early in 1975. I was responsible for the selection of artists, the work, installation and catalog (LCC#75-615). In the introduction, I wrote: “The 34th biennial includes both individual work by modern American masters who have exhibited in past Biennials and work by artists who represent the diverse or new directions of painting today. 50 artists were invited to exhibit. Half these artists have exhibited in Biennials during the past decades. The names include some of the best-known American painters and confirm and celebrate the importance and achievements of past Biennials. The artists were invited to show one recent work, reflecting current developments in their painting.”
“At the same time some of the artists who had not previously exhibited in a Corcoran Biennial were invited to exhibit work relevant and unique to the Corcoran. The exhibition presents paintings which break away from the stretched canvas and deal with other potentials of painting, work that is done directly on the wall or is hanging free from the wall. Several of the artists created new the work specifically for the Corcoran environment. These special environmental works, and indeed the entire presentation of paintings in juxtaposition, will exist only at this time.”
“The decision to invite each selected artist to exhibit one major work was a departure from previous years, in which a smaller number of artists were represented by a greater number of paintings. Taking only one work from each artist, the exhibition allows more artists the opportunity of exposure. In the previous three Biennials, the jury system was not used. The selection was that of the director. The 34th biennial continues that principle. The Biennial then serves many purposes, not only being a celebration American painting, but also confirming the commitment of the Corcoran to modern art and the importance of Washington as a major center for art…The Corcoran Biennial exhibitions have presented some of the best of American painting for nearly 70 years. The Biennials as a whole form a fascinating history of American painting.”
I concluded my introduction by stating that: “No attempt has been made to define painting but rather an attempt has been made to delight in painting. Neither the essay nor the exhibition is intended to be a definitive statement on painting or an attempt to form opinion or distort history. The Biennial is a personal presentation, by a painter, of aspects and attitudes are painting. The 34th Biennial should indeed confirm and celebrate the integrity and vigor of American painting today.”
The exhibition was well received by critics but my introductory essay was not; my writings were considered, and are, too personal and rambling. However, the exhibition remains as a testimony to American painting of that day. Jennifer Barlett presented 78 units each 12 x 12 inches in enamel: “Painting and Drawing 1974”. Interestingly, a larger vision of this work, from 1974, was shown last year (2007) at the Museum of Modern Art. Women artists included Grace Hartigan; Marilyn Lenkowsky; Joan Mitchell; Dorothea Rockburne; Joan Snyder; and Helen Frankenthaler. Other artists of note were Richard Diebenkorn; Robert Motherwell; Ken Noland; Philip Pearlstein; Larry Poons; Frank Stella; Andy Warhol; and Tom Wesselman. The catalog cover was designed by Robert Indiana.
Large works dominated the show; Chuck Close presented the large 9’ x 7’, portrait “Richard 1974-75”. Paul Sarkasian’s canvas was 17’ x 24’; a life size rendering of a store front. The young Alan Shields presented a work of canvas, rope, beads, concrete and acrylic which measured 9' x 20' x 16', covering the upper atrium bridge. The work could be walked through and was a three dimensional painting. Another artist creating colorful works that were between painting and sculpture was Robert Hudson from California. John Walker created a drawing on the wall of the gallery for his Corcoran debut. As a friend and fellow artist from the UK, John gave me the idea of asking some artists to create works specifically for the Corcoran. The California artist, Ed Moses, did that with “Rack 1975”, 20’ x 18’, a dry wall, wood scaffold and asphalt construction. The massive installation by Sam Gilliam of his hanging canvases “Three Panels for Mr. Robeson 1975” filled an entire gallery. The largest work was by the Washington artist, Gene Davis, who painted the rotunda in his famed stripes. The work, titled “The Magic Circle 1975”, was painted on the two circular walls of the rotunda, each 59 feet by 14 feet. American painting certainly was alive and well through the work of these artists; and, despite the naysayers and video voyeurs, remains so to this day.
Gene Davis "The Magic Circle" 1975 Corcoran Biennial.
Mimi Herbert "Bicentennial Flag" 1976.
Above: Corcoran exterior facade. Below: Corcoran grand staircase.
During the Bicentennial, the exhibition and catalog (LCC#76-457) “Corcoran” was presented to honor the founder W. W. Corcoran. During that year, the exhibition “The Corcoran & Washington Art” was presented, along with a catalog (LCC#76-42098). Both exhibitions were favorites of mine, as were the catalogs, for they dealt with art of the past and present; reconfirming the intent of the founder. To show the work of Washington artists, my friends and colleagues, was particularly gratifying. The work by Washington artists reflected all media; sculpture, drawing, prints, photography, mixed media, installation and site specific work. In the catalog, I conclude: “…in many different ways, the Corcoran will continue its vital role within the community, for there will always be room at the Gallery for Washington Art’. Over thirty years later, I trust that this statement rings true?
Photography had come to play an increasing role in both the gallery and school; a new darkroom and studio had been installed when I became Dean. Within the gallery, Walter Hopps was also supportive of photographers; a commitment that I furthered with major exhibitions of Ansell Adams and Walker Evans. Jane Livingston became Chief Curator in 1973. She is photographed with me on the catalog cover of “The Corcoran & Washington Art”, as are Frances Fralin and Susan Grady. For the Bicentennial, Jane Livingston organized, with Frances Fralin, a series of exhibitions, “The Nation’s Capital in Photographs, 1976”. Eight eminent photographers were invited to stay and photograph the city and its people. Again, catalogs do exist; the one on Robert Cumming is LCC#76-466. The other photographers were Lewis Baltz; Joe Cameron; Roy DeCavara; Lee Friedlander; John Gossage; Jan Groover; and Anthony Hernandez. Other ’76 exhibits included contemporary landscapes in “Ameica 76”, organized by the Department of the Interior, and “Palladio in America”. With these diverse exhibitions, in 1976, the Corcoran celebrated its influential role and fine achievements in the art and culture of our nation.
The financial well being of any museum is vital to its operation and well being. Not only must funds be raised but finances managed wisely. When I took over the Corcoran in November1972, the deficits were increasing and the small endowment was eroding. In the fiscal year ending the previous August, the gallery deficit was $265,323; four years later, August 1976, the gallery deficit had been reduced to $3,096. The school operated with a small excess during those years. The endowment remained at three million dollars; amongst the challenges facing the Corcoran was increasing the endowment; climate control; building maintenance and the endless problems faced by many museums. Nevertheless, finances were stabilized; the exhibition program sustained; acquisitions and gifts enriched the collection; staff morale and the reputation of the Corcoran were restored.
Years later, my wife Agnes and I were visiting the National Gallery of Art; I saw my former board chairman, David Lloyd Kreeger. He was with a friend to whom he introduced me warmly, saying, “This is Roy Slade, the man who saved the Corcoran.” No accolade or praise could mean more to me than those few words that I cherish to this day. (03/03/08)