A Bold Break with its Past

Paul Greenhalgh Hopes Ambitious 'Modernism' Show Will Help Him Remake The Corcoran Gallery

by Blake Gopnik
The Washington Post
Sunday, February 11, 2007

Modernism matters to us all, from the moment we wake up to when we fall asleep.

So what if you live in a restored Victorian and decorate only with antiques? The smooth plastic of your morning toothbrush, the slick monitor you're glued to all day at work, the Metro that carries you home to bed -- every one of them depends on ideas of how a "modern" life should look and should be lived.

This spring, modernism matters most of all to the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Its 1897 building is all classical columns and marble. Its collection is most famous for gold-framed oil paintings by American Old Masters. But under Paul Greenhalgh, its new director, the Corcoran is staking everything on modernism. Or rather, on "Modernism," a massive touring exhibition -- already declared a "blockbuster" in Corcoran publicity -- that opens March 17. The show will explore how those "modern" ideas about design and art, which today touch everyone, everywhere, were first conceived almost a hundred years ago by a handful of European radicals.

Modernism, the movement, says Greenhalgh, was about relaunching the world, with new forms that were supposed to move society in new directions. "Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939" is about "relaunching ourselves as an institution," says Greenhalgh. "There's an agenda for us here -- it's the perfect exhibition for us at this moment in time."

The walls of the exhibition will proudly read: "A great epoch has begun. There exists a new spirit." It's a famous tagline from the great Swiss architect Le Corbusier, one of modernism's crucial figures. "It is not an exaggeration," says Greenhalgh, "to say we feel that way about the Corcoran."

Greenhalgh's institution has been having a rough ride. In 2005, the year before he was hired, it scrapped plans to spend something like $200 million -- money it didn't have and had failed to raise -- on a splashy Frank Gehry addition.

Even before that, the museum seemed to have problems with focus and quality control: It borrowed shows on all kinds of subjects, from Jackie Kennedy's wardrobe to paintings from the covers of account books in medieval Siena. Its full-career survey of modern painter Larry Rivers -- an old friend of the director at the time -- was an exhibition idea already rejected by more prestigious institutions. Henry Allen, The Washington Post's photography critic, found a "disappointing deadness" in an exhibition of images of women by commercial photographer Annie Leibovitz. And the Corcoran's show of new work by Johnson & Johnson heir J. Seward Johnson Jr., consisting of life-size bronzes of the figures in famous impressionist paintings, was hardly award-winning fare. (At the time, I said it was the worst museum show I'd ever seen. It has yet to be topped.)

The Corcoran was not exactly seen as a center of excellence in the museum world. On the contrary, says Greenhalgh, by the time he arrived it had become known "for trying to do something and failing." His ambitious modernism show, making its only American stop at the Corcoran, must prove the opposite: "Delivering what we say we will deliver -- this project is all about that."

There will be a lot to deliver on.

"Modernism," on tour from London's great Victoria and Albert Museum -- where Greenhalgh was once a senior curator -- is the largest survey of the topic ever done. It looks at how we got to the modern forms we all live with today. At the Corcoran, the show will include well over 400 modernist objects, documents and film clips. It will feature sleek chairs and radios and lamps; paintings, sculptures and fine-art photographs; maquettes and images of famous modern buildings. There will be the world's first built-in modern kitchen, as well as a Buck Rogers-worthy car from 1937 and a sinister chrome-plated, man-size X-ray machine that looks worthy of Buck's worst enemy.

The show will take up nearly the entire museum, filling more than 22,000 square feet of exhibition space. It will have even more objects in it than the sprawling London version.

















When its predecessor, a show on art nouveau curated by Greenhalgh, traveled from the V&A to the National Gallery in 2000, its complex installation called on the full resources of that wealthy, well-staffed institution. Mark Leithauser, who's the National Gallery's chief of design, heads a staff of about 35 designers and craftspeople. For a major installation such as "Art Nouveau," he can call on a team of contractors to boost that number. "The logistics of the thing are amazing," Leithauser says. ". . . It's a great big thing to bite off, for the Corcoran."

Compared with art-world big boys such as the V&A or the National Gallery, the Corcoran's a runt -- its exhibition-design team has only seven full-time staff, and that's counting several members of its art-school faculty -- and not even in the best of health. Years of neglect, and of slapdash renovation, have left some of the doors and moldings in its soaring galleries so paint-encrusted they look like something from an ancient tenement. Painters and designers are hard at work on a makeover, but there isn't money, or time, for reconstructive surgery.The museum has a layout problem, too: Its galleries were never meant to host huge touring shows, so visitors will have to traipse up stairs and down corridors to take in all of "Modernism."

Aside from Greenhalgh, who has written several books on design and modernism, the Corcoran doesn't have much in-house expertise on the topic, and has no precedents or established procedures for managing a project of this scope.

"The bar has been raised," says Rebecca Gentry, filling the new post of vice president of institutional advancement at the Corcoran. "That's exciting, but it's hard." She says that if staff have been "pulling their hair out," it's because of the absurdly tight timelines for the show -- installation of the building's new front desks and doors is scheduled to be done March 10, just the day before the first previews -- and because of the new range of responsibilities they're forcing on everyone.

That, says Greenhalgh, was part of the point.

Even if the exhibition were never to attract a single soul, Greenhalgh insists it has already "succeeded for us," pushing a downhearted, disempowered staff toward teamwork and a can-do spirit.

Yet it's clear that bringing people in is the exhibition's crucial job. Greenhalgh's attention and conversation keep coming back to audience and attendance. "Ideally, 12 million people will come," he jokes. Then, with a prod from Gentry, he sobers up: He'd be "happy" with 100,000 people but thinks it will go higher. Something like 150,000 would be "good" (that's about how many showed up for "Modernism" at the V&A, despite competition from the soccer World Cup). Another 50,000 "would be breathtaking." That would bring it very close to the number who showed up to see Jackie's dresses, and closer to the almost 270,000 who came to see "Art Nouveau" at the National Gallery.

Though adults will be paying $14 to get in, Greenhalgh says he isn't counting on making money from "Modernism," which could cost as much as $2.5 million. He says he'd be delighted to break even. The real goal is to convince as broad a range of people as possible -- from art lovers to your average Joe, from potential sponsors to journalists to his museum peers -- of the Corcoran's newfound excellence and ambition.

Though "Modernism" ought to be sponsor-friendly -- think of all those design firms and skyscraper builders and furniture companies that might want to get behind it -- no corporate donors of any size have stepped up so far, with just a month to go. Most would have already committed this year's marketing funds well before being approached with "Modernism," which wasn't confirmed until late last summer. (The Corcoran says it is in sponsorship talks with one local company involved in regional and national real estate that already has links to the museum.)

But whatever the level of success in this round of pitches, the scale and ambition of "Modernism" has at least allowed the Corcoran to "be at the table," says Greenhalgh, as it might not have been before.

"We want the city to know we're alive and well and capable of doing this," Greenhalgh says.

"Modernism" is a long-term investment. "You don't repair an institution like this instantly. . . . I always saw this project as a five-year project. There are no quick answers when an institution gets itself into a hole this deep."

The Victoria and Albert was also going through hard times when Greenhalgh was there in the 1990s. Yearly attendance had dropped to 800,000 and politicians talked of closing the place down. Part of its recovery since then -- to 2.3 million visitors last year -- has depended on the popular success of a series of mega-shows such as "Modernism," which Greenhalgh had a hand in launching. If such shows could save the V&A, says Greenhalgh, couldn't "Modernism" be the Corcoran's savior?

At least in theory, design is a hot topic and a hot commodity these days. What could be more current, Greenhalgh says, than the notion that the challenges of modern life can be approached through design -- which is the notion at the very heart of "Modernism"?

And the sheer range of its topics and objects, he says, from health equipment to automotive gear to classic paintings by Picasso and Mondrian, should also make sure the exhibition has the broadest possible fan base "beyond the classic fine-arts audience."

You'll want to see it "whether you like tubular steel furniture or not," says Greenhalgh.

The reasoning makes sense, but it isn't a sure thing.

The public as a whole may be warming to modern design, but they like to shop for it, at Ikea or Design Within Reach. It's not necessarily what they go to a museum for.

It's also not clear that even the most eager modernistas are keen on studying the sociological causes and utopian ideologies behind a favorite 1930s chair. That historical and intellectual context is very much the focus of "Modernism," whose explanations and historical documents -- a case with first editions of Thomas More's "Utopia," Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four," is due to get a room all to itself -- may dilute the impact of its stunning objects.

There's also the fact that Washington's museum crowd is strange: A big chunk of it is made up of tourists here just to visit the nation's capital and spend time on the Mall. They tend to wander into the Mall's famous museums -- the National Gallery, the great Smithsonian buildings -- because they're there, because they've heard of them and because they're free. They don't necessarily study a list of exhibitions to decide where they'll head next. The Corcoran may be too far off the standard tourist beat, and too far off the radar as an institution, for any single show to change such ingrained habits.

Unless "Modernism" comes to stand for something the Corcoran is most fundamentally about, it won't change the institution's long-term prospects.

Yet the show wasn't chosen because modernism was the topic best suited to the Corcoran's mission -- to its past or to a vision of its future or even to its collection. "Modernism" is at the Corcoran because Greenhalgh, the new director, needed a major exhibition that would turn a spotlight on his institution, ASAP. "Modernism" happened to be out there, the right show at the right time. (Greenhalgh says he considered half a dozen touring exhibitions that might fit the bill, including one on Frida Kahlo.) Though a show as prestigious and complex as "Modernism" might normally have been out of reach for the troubled Corcoran, Greenhalgh's connections at the V&A let him make a bid for it, and win.

If it proves a popular success, Greenhalgh will still have to answer the question he says is likely to be asked by a typical viewer: "That was a really great show. I wonder why they did it." He'll need to define a future beyond "Modernism" that makes sense of what the Corcoran is all about.

Greenhalgh talks of using "Modernism" to launch a slight shift in emphasis toward design, his own first love and specialty -- and a niche not filled by any other Washington museum. (Greenhalgh says that if he decides to continue staging the Corcoran's biennial survey shows-- a tradition that turns 100 this year but is currently on hold -- he will almost certainly expand their scope beyond fine art.)

Greenhalgh also talks of working at the highest levels of scholarship and curating, to host and launch "internationally important, world-class" exhibitions.

"I am not a populist," he says, and insists that his Corcoran will never do a lightweight show just because it might attract crowds. "This institution is not going to be driven by blockbusters."

But looking at the roster of the Corcoran's biggest upcoming shows, that seems just where the place is heading, in the near term at least. Next fall, the museum will be hosting the latest spread of Leibovitz photos (on tour from the Brooklyn Museum, another troubled institution with quality-control issues -- critics have lambasted its "Star Wars" and hip-hop shows). That will overlap with one of a pile of Ansel Adams exhibitions that have been touring the country since the popular photographer's death -- this one pulled from a single private collection by curators at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The one exhibition idea that might really make the Corcoran matter again is to go before the Corcoran's board for approval someday soon. Dreamed up by Greenhalgh when he was still at the V&A, it will be a kind of sequel to "Modernism." It will look at what architects and artists and designers have been up to in the last few decades in response to the modern movement and maybe even in opposition to it. "Postmodernism" promises to make "Modernism" -- and modernism, the movement -- seem like child's play. If postmodern art and design are about anything, they are about avoiding simple labels and tidy story lines and clear messages, or even attractive objects. That's the mess -- an important, fertile, sometimes even inspiring mess -- the Corcoran will be trying to corral.

If it succeeds, and produces a show other museums are eager to take -- the V&A is already collaborating on planning-- the Corcoran will be able to breathe easy. It will have joined the big leagues.

"Modernism" is supposed to bring a bright future to the Corcoran -- modernism's usual promise. "Postmodernism" just might bring it an important present.