Fine Art of Museum Revitalization: How David Levy Has Transformed Corcoran Gallery

Article excerpt

It's a normal, busy day at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, one of Washington's fastest-growing museums. Even the sculpted beaux-arts lions guarding what has been called the city's most beautiful building seem to roar. The place is alive with people. Both locals and tourists wait at the mod Corcoran Cafe for tasty, moderately priced lunches. At noon on Wednesdays, free jazz concerts fill the air with music.

Local schoolchildren pile into the gallery to see its excellent 19th-century collection of American painting. Or they may try to figure out the real meaning of Washington artist Martha Jackson-Jarvis' ceramic sculptures and of art by local artists in the "ArtSites '96" exhibition.

Below the museum, about 3,500 Corcoran School of Art students - both full- and part-time - busily work in this country's last major combined museum and art school.

Both the museum and school burst with energy and vitality. But it wasn't always this way. Seven years ago, in June 1989, Corcoran director Christina Orr-Cahall bowed to congressional pressure and canceled an exhibition of the late Robert Mapplethorpe's works that included sexually explicit and homoerotic photographs. The resulting negative uproar echoed throughout the country. Some predicted the Corcoran, a private museum in a city of public cultural institutions, wouldn't survive.

Everything changed in January 1991 with the appointment of New York arts administrator, art historian, musician and photographer David C. Levy as the Corcoran's president and director. Strange choice? Not really. If anyone could turn the Corcoran around, it would be Mr. Levy.

Known in the press as an "institution fixer," he had revitalized New York's Parsons School of Design. Beginning in 1970 and continuing for 19 years, he transformed Parsons from a small, insolvent trade school into the largest and most diversified private visual arts college in the United States. He established additional campuses in Los Angeles, Paris and the Dominican Republic and offered specialized programs in Italy, West Africa, England, Israel and Japan, making Parsons a major force in international education. He later merged Parsons with the New School for Social Research.

Mr. Levy, 58, a man of many talents, is a lifelong musician and plays 14 musical instruments, three professionally. He also builds them. He's a photographer who has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Now, 5 years after taking charge at the Corcoran, Mr. Levy can talk about the museum's future and its expansion. He's wiped out the deficit, expanded exhibitions to 32 a year, increased attendance to 200,000 persons annually with the exhibits and Night and Day community and educational programs. He has succeeded in raising the $6 million endowment to $23 million, developed Family Day programs for both parents and children and revitalized the museum's art school under the leadership of Parsons colleague Samuel Hoi. Now Mr. Levy can talk comfortably about the museum's future and its expansion.

"What I asked in coming to the Corcoran in 1991 was what the museum was, what it could be and whom it should serve" Mr. Levy recalls while seated in his oak-paneled office, hung with paintings by his artist mother, Lucille Corcos, and sculptor godfather, David Smith.

Growing up surrounded by artists - his father, Edgar Levy, and godmother Dorothy Dehner as well as his mother and godfather - he got an early education in the needs of artists and art institutions.

Mr. Levy says he feels strongly that in addition to being a world-class national museum, the Corcoran needs to serve its local community. He points out that most of Washington's museums are federally funded and not designed to serve the local population. He likens the Corcoran's mandate to that of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art and of the St. …