October 23, 2012 / 8:38 PM / 5 years ago

Washington's Corcoran museum seeks lifeline, sale an option

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Corcoran Gallery, Washington's oldest art museum, would seem to have an unbeatable combination with its top collection, a landmark building and tourist-friendly site near the White House.

But behind its Beaux Arts facade, which houses works from a 17,000-piece collection that include artists Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent, Eugene Delacroix, Claude Monet and Willem de Kooning, the Corcoran's board of trustees is looking for a lifeline after years of losing money.

Sale of the building, links to another institution or a move from the city are being weighed as ways to save the museum.

The Corcoran, which is a nonprofit institution, said this month it was in talks with the federal National Gallery of Art and George Washington University about "sustainable options" for the museum and its 550-student Corcoran College of Art and Design.

The Corcoran, the biggest private museum in the U.S. capital, "is one of the premier landmark pieces of history in the city and it has to be preserved," President Fred Bollerer told Reuters.

He said the museum was also talking with other institutions but declined to name them. It hopes to decide on its future by the first half of next year, Bollerer added.

The museum hired real estate firm CBRE Group Inc as its adviser in September.

POTENTIAL SALE "OBSCENE"

Opponents, who say loss of the Corcoran would tear a hole in Washington's cultural fabric, have vowed to fight a move or sale.

"The very idea of selling the building and moving to the suburbs is as absurd as it is obscene," said Bill Dunlap, an artist and member of the Save the Corcoran coalition.

Founded in 1869, the Corcoran moved to its current building in 1897. But it has a serious handicap because it charges admission while other public museums in Washington are free. Attendance has dropped markedly, with 68,000 visitors foreseen for 2012.

Donations have roughly halved with the recession and as potential donors channel their money into the November 6 election, Bollerer said.

Finances "are still challenging" even after two years of trying to stabilize them and design a sustainability plan, Bollerer said.

After running deficits for years, the shortfall for the current fiscal year is expected to top $7 million. The building also needs at least $130 million in renovations.

The Washington Post reported last week that officials in Alexandria, Virginia, had approached the Corcoran as early as July 2011 about relocating across the Potomac River.

In a potential hurdle to a sale, the District of Columbia Historic Preservation League sought this month to extend the landmark designation for the museum's exterior to the interior. Approval would mean public review of any major construction.

Reporting by Ian Simpson; editing by Patricia Reaney and Leslie Adler

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