News

End of the Corcoran? New Plan Would Dissolve the Gallery

by Jillian Steinhauer on February 19, 2014

The Corcoran Gallery's beaux-arts building

The Corcoran Gallery’s Beaux-Arts building, designed by Ernest Flagg (photo by Laura Padgett, via art around on Flickr)

After years of financial crisis, Washington, DC’s Corcoran Gallery of Art — the city’s largest and oldest private museum, which focuses on American art — has announced a plan that would see it “cease to exist as an independent institution,” the Washington Post reports.

Under the terms of arrangement, which is not yet final, the museum’s collection would go to the National Gallery, while its landmarked Beaux-Arts building and the Corcoran College of Art and Design would go to George Washington University (GW). The National Gallery would not keep all 17,000 Corcoran-owned artworks but instead conduct a study and acquire “a large fraction of them,” giving the rest away to institutions throughout the US. The National Gallery would also mount modern and contemporary art exhibitions in the Corcoran building under the title Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art, and a Corcoran Legacy Gallery would be maintained in the building, “featuring works closely associated with the Corcoran’s history.” Entry would be free; the Corcoran is currently one of very few museums in Washington that charge admission.

George Washington, meanwhile, would incorporate the Corcoran College of Art and Design into the university. It would also receive the Corcoran building for free but would be obligated to pay for its renovation, whose cost has been estimated as high as $130 million.

The Corcoran has been seeking institutional partners to help save it for years now; last spring, a widely reported deal with the University of Maryland seemed imminent but then fizzled by the fall. The deadline for working out the details of the present arrangement is April 7.

Whether or not the GW/National Gallery plan comes to pass, it seems certain that the Corcoran will not remain a unified whole, which had still been the hope when museum officials were negotiating last year. “There is no way to continue the Corcoran as we knew it or as we know it,” Peggy Loar, interim director and president of the Corcoran, told the Post. Under the current deal, the Corcoran would remain an independent nonprofit entity, but its actions would be limited to consulting with the National Gallery and shaping the institution’s legacy.

In its press release regarding the deal, the Corcoran tries to paint the announcement in a positive light, writing:

The proposed arrangement among the three prominent Washington, D.C., institutions comes as the culmination of a five-year effort by the Corcoran’s Board of Trustees to preserve the 17th Street building as both a museum space and a home for the College and to ensure the future of the Corcoran collection as a treasure accessible to all. Due to the challenges faced by the Corcoran, its Board has sought to achieve these goals by exploring collaborations with other cultural and educational institutions.

But many blame the board and the institution’s leadership for those unnamed “challenges.”

In addition to breaking the news, the Post also has a piece by its art critic, Philip Kennicott, in which he calls the plan “cultural euthanasia” and writes, “this is the end of the Corcoran and its final dismemberment.” He offers this eulogy for the belovedly idiosyncratic but long troubled institution:

The collection as a living entity is gone, and so, too, the Corcoran as an independent presence in Washington cultural life. The quirks of the old gallery, founded in 1869 as Washington’s first art museum, will disappear. Any lingering sense of the Corcoran’s collection as the expression of William Wilson Corcoran’s aesthetic taste, any reflection of the giants of Washington cultural life who also left their art in its care, will vanish. The eccentricities of the Corcoran’s staff and curators, the peculiar feistiness of the place that arose from its dual mission as a college and gallery, all of that will be gone, too.

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