Levy Sees Smoother Seas at the Corcoran
WASHINGTON — THE new kid on the block in Washington's art world is David Levy, who this year took the unenviable job of president and director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.The Corcoran had been mired for two years in the volcanic mudslide resulting from its 1989 cancellation of the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe show with its sexually explicit and homoerotic photos. The Mapplethorpe cancellation kicked up a censorship vs. freedom of expression battle in 1989-90 that cleft the American art world and put in jeopardy the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which partially funded it. So when David Levy left his former job as chancellor of Manhattan's New School for Social Research and walked into his oak-paneled office at the Corcoran, he was walking into a museum director's nightmare. The Corcoran had been without a director for a year, had a 20 percent drop in membership, had lost nearly a dozen staff members (including its four top jobs), had suffered through an artists' boycott, had lost thousands in contributions and donations, had a previous year's deficit of $1.2 million, and had a dark tarnish on its reputation as one of the finest private museums in the country. Mr. Levy chose not to get out the silver polish but to get out the broom, sweeping away the mistakes of the past and then installing a new image. Asked if he was going to polish up the old image, he says, "No, I really don't feel it's necessary. Look, it was a mistake.... I wouldn't expect to be held hostage for things that happened under someone else's administration. And to the degree that people might continue to do that, I would consider it very childish and unrealistic." David Levy is the kind of guy who tells this story on himself: his favorite office rug, an oriental, was the wrong size for his new Corcoran office. He explains: "I love oriental rugs. When I got down here [I met] one of our supporters, one of the really interesting patrons who has had a long association with the Corcoran and is probably the major oriental rug dealer in town." He smiles. "So I said to him, 'Get me a rug.' So he did." Mr. Levy laughs. "I didn't get to pick it out. He picked it out. But beggars can't be choosers." Still, that kind of attitude may help him with the Corcoran's red ink. He has already cut the deficit in half, although fiscally speaking he had only six months to do it (the year runs from July to June). "The most urgent problem is money," he concedes. "You can't just sit there and expect people out of the goodness of their hearts to give you money. You really have to ask, and if you don't ask you're not going to get it." He wants to raise the endowment to $30 million as "a good solid cushion" for the institution's future. He is also looking ahead to the goal of raising more capital to pay for a new building for the Corcoran's art school. Levy has always put his money where his mouth is. After he took over as chief administrative officer of the nearly bankrupt Parsons School of Design in 1970, merging it with the New School, Parson's enrollment went from 550 to 12,000. Its annual budget went from $1 million to $45 million in the 19 years he ran it. He also saved the failing Otis Art Institute, merging it into a Parsons West Coast campus. This hero of struggling arts institutions is a casual, candid man who chats amiably about his big white marble problems at the Corcoran. But there is an authoritative side to the man with the silver beard and delft blue eyes; he talks like a stern father about wayward children when discussing his critics. He says firmly that the first thing he did in accepting his Corcoran job was to "tell the board I would want [them] to ratify and adopt a statement which I drafted on First-Amendment rights of freedom of expression," a commitment to "the preservation and enhancement of freedom of speech, thought, inquiry and artistic expression through its exhibition and and educational programs." It was done. Levy was chancellor of the New School when it sued the NEA for demanding that its grant recipients sign an anti-obscenity pledge - and won. It seems a paradox that the man behind that First Amendment suit is now director of the museum that started the arts censorship battle. But Levy says, "I don't think it's a paradox at all. I think it's a credit to the Corcoran, which was very much aware of that suit." The censorship issue has just broken out again with a lawsuit by four performance artists denied grants by the NEA, and a Senate vote to prohibit NEA funding of offensive works. David Levy's view is that "we're certainly not going to do anything as sophomoric as go out and look for provocative things to do to somehow or other show the world that we're on the right side of the issue." Instead, he says, "We will use our professional judgment to originate and screen and make decisions" about shows. The Corcoran board must also have been aware that they had hooked a modern Renaissance man who is not only an art historian, educator, and administrator, but also a professional photographer (his work hangs at the Museum of Modern Art). He's also a jazz saxophonist who plays 13 other instruments (among them the viola, piano, clarinet, violin, and bass). In New York he and artist Larry Rivers started the East Thirteenth Street Band; Levy is still looking for a jazz band to play gigs with here, and has started jazz evenings at the Corcoran. His office reflects his eclectic tastes: Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chairs, an olive-colored velvet Victorian love seat, a Corbusier glass table. Above the oak paneling, one and a half walls are lined with his a panoramic study of the Hudson River by his mother, Lucille Corcos, as well as his own photos of his father, sculptor David Smith, and his own graphic arts poster for the Mannes School. David Levy has led a life steeped in art. His father was a member of an important group of avant-garde artists that included Adolf Gottlieb and Mark Rothko. His godfather was sculptor David Smith. Levy grew up on a little road in Rockland County, N.Y., where his neighbors were playwright Maxwell Anderson, director John Houseman, and composer Kurt Weill, and their children. Levy has two grown children of his own; he and his wife are separated. After his heady upbringing, he received his A.B. degree from Columbia College, Columbia University, and his M.A. and Ph.D degrees from New York University's Department of Organizational Studies. It's no surprise, then, that he says "I am very committed to the notion that museums are places in which people are educated.... "To teach the history of art in a way that would lead to its disconnection from its cultural context is almost useless.... To teach students about the Renaissance and never say a word about Dante, or to talk about Michelangelo or Giotto and never talk about what's going on intellectually, politically, or culturally is a great mistake.... "So I think what we're looking at is the collection and trying to help people understand the world in which this was created."