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More Than a Year After the Dissolution of the Corcoran, Its Art School Still Struggles in a New Home

A sign pointing to the location of the old Corcoran Gallery and School of Art building. (photo by J B/Flickr)
A sign pointing to the location of the old Corcoran Gallery and School of Art building. (photo by J B/Flickr)

WASHINGTON, DC — Maeve McCool vividly remembers when she first learned that the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the conjoining Corcoran College of Art and Design would be no more. “It was the second day of my freshman year at the Corcoran,” she says.

“Corcoran students didn’t find out about the merger [with George Washington University] until after a Washington Post article came out,” says Jessica Metzger, another Corcoran student.

“We all remember the time and place when we found out,” says her friend and fellow Corcoran student, Camila Rondon, who recalls that even the faculty was kept in the dark until the last possible moment.

It’s been a year and a semester since the DC Superior Court dissolved the Corcoran Gallery and College. Every once in a while, we hear news about the fate of select pieces from the former museum’s collection, many of which have been claimed by the National Gallery of Art. But little is known about the plight of the college, its staff, faculty, and students since it was taken over by George Washington University (GW).

After a year under the GW banner, the Corcoran College — renamed the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design — and members of the school’s community are still adjusting to the culture clash between the Corcoran and GW, worried about curricular changes and what they mean for their future, and mourning the perceived loss of a unique community.

Art School Meets Research University

During one of my many visits to the Corcoran building this fall I picked up a brochure advertising the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design’s undergraduate programs. Among the departmental descriptions and FAQs, I was struck by a box titled “Live Here / Work Anywhere,” listing a couple dozen places where Corcoran graduates have interned and worked, including Apple, Condé Nast, PBS, The Washington Post, and a number of museums. Nowhere in the brochure could I find a listing of the well-known artists with successful private practices who attended the school — a list that includes Tara Donovan, David Lynch, and Tim Gunn. No one goes to an art school to get a desk job at Apple or even at the Metropolitan Museum. This brochure struck me as a perfect illustration of the culture clash between a GW administration that publicizes its graduates’ lucrative job prospects and the Corcoran community’s unwavering devotion to the pursuit of the arts as fulfilling in and of itself.

As anyone at the Corcoran will tell you, the art school was tossed into GW’s lap, creating a huge amount of extra work for the GW administration. “The Corcoran arrived on GW’s doorstep, like an unwanted baby in a basket,” says Andy Grundberg, a professor in the Corcoran’s photography and art history departments.

“The GW administration hasn’t had the luxury of time to make decisions,” says Ricky Altizer, a junior in the graphic design department and president of the Corcoran Student Association. “If I were GW, I would’ve spent a year watching and trying to understand how the Corcoran works. In the last year, we lost a lot of really good faculty and students.”

One of the biggest fights for Corcoran students in the past year was getting 24-hour access to their studios — a fight that they ultimately won, but not without jumping through many bureaucratic hoops. Students say they would often have to show up at administrative meetings to present their cases numerous times before they felt they’d been heard. “The GW people are nice people trying to understand things, but they don’t know what we’ve gone through,” says McCool.

“GW brought in administrators that had no experience with fine art,” says Metzger. “The cultural disconnect was astounding. At one point, a career counselor went into a Corcoran class and told students that art was a hobby and to look for real jobs.”

“Last fall, faculty was not part of student recruitment as much,” admits Lisa Lipinski, program head of the Corcoran’s arts and humanities department.

A reception for the grand opening of a new gallery run by Corcoran students, Griffin Gallery. (photo courtesy Griffin Gallery)
A reception for the grand opening of a new gallery run by Corcoran students, Griffin Gallery. (photo by Eddy Leonel Aldana, courtesy Griffin Gallery)

“We did not review student portfolios last year during the actual admissions process,” says Lynn Sures, program head of the Corcoran’s fine arts department. “In the past, our Corcoran Admissions office always reviewed the normal freshman entrants and we were only called in to weigh in on the tough cases. That was the first time, though, we didn’t examine transfer portfolios, for which we’ve always weighed in and determined placement level and transfer credit distribution, in the past.”

“My biggest fear is the Corcoran turning into a hub for people to do their creative minors,” says Leila Eguino, a senior in the art studies department.

Administrative problems aside, many art students in GW’s Columbian College of Arts & Sciences, which is now home to both GW’s old arts programs and the Corcoran School, are pleased with the merger. “The Corcoran students are so cool!” says Milan Gary, a senior in the Columbian’s fine arts and art history departments. “And Corcoran professors have such crazy connections to the professional art world. GW students tend to be more practical and don’t see themselves as being successful artists. For Corcoran students, art is the legit thing to do.”

Many Corcoran students and faculty have had a more positive outlook since October, when Sanjit Sethi became the director of the Corcoran School.

“Sanjit is definitely a breath of fresh air from what we’ve gone through in the past year,” says Rondon. “He hits all the parts we wanted: he’s a working artist and has worked in an art school setting. He wants to know all the experiences the students have had. He wants to know us.”

Sethi’s impressive résumé includes working at over a half-dozen art schools. He has a successful private practice and a background in ceramics and sculpture. He’s also worked as a shop tech and a curator. Within his first week at the Corcoran, Sethi managed to curate and install a photography exhibition on the plight of Guatemalan migrants in the Corcoran’s emptied foyer. “It’s so fantastic to have art back on the walls,” says Metzger.

Sethi has an open door policy. He listens to all students, faculty, and staff who want to talk to him, thoughtfully taking notes. (After his first day at the Corcoran, he took the shop techs out for drinks.) I talked to Sethi less than a month after he’d begun his new job, when he was still in his “listening stage,” but he already had ideas brewing on how to best integrate the Corcoran into GW without compromising the art school’s history and integrity. He noted that creativity isn’t just for art students and entrepreneurship isn’t just for everyone else. The broader GW community has something to learn from the Corcoran and vice versa.

“The Corcoran didn’t have good leadership before, and it trickles down,” says Philippa Hughes, a respected DC arts patron, who has worked with many Corcoran and GW students, alumni, and instructors. “What they needed was an exciting new leader after being led by people that didn’t really care for a long time.”

Everyone, in both the Corcoran and GW camps, hopes Sethi will be that exciting new leader.

Curricular Woes

In an effort to integrate the Corcoran with the existing GW departments, a few majors have changed drastically. The Corcoran’s art education and teaching programs are merging into GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, and the Corcoran’s interior design programs are being folded into GW’s Interior Architecture and Design program. A couple of the more controversial changes involved two of the Corcoran’s most unique programs: BA Art Studies, which integrates studio art with art history and theory; and MA Art and the Book, which focuses on artists’ books and the history and theory of books and visual culture. While Art and the Book was ultimately saved from the chopping block, Art Studies had no such luck. Existing Art Studies upperclassmen will finish their degrees, but the sophomores have already had to change majors. (There are no freshmen, as no new students were accepted into the program this year.)

Rondon, Metzger, and Eguino are Art Studies seniors this year. McCool is one of the sophomores who had to change her major. “It was a hard battle, trying to keep the Art Studies major, but we lost,” she says. “Our next [challenge] is keeping academic staff and classes.” The students are particularly worried about the fate of three of the Corcoran’s core humanities faculty — Lipinski, Casey Smith, and Bernard Welt. In October, with the help of Altizer and the Corcoran Student Association, the students wrote a plea to administrators highlighting the important role that these professors play in, among other things, “maintaining the intellectual stature of Corcoran student work.”

A plaque commemorating the founding of the Corcoran Gallery and School (photo by Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)
A plaque commemorating the founding of the Corcoran Gallery and School (photo by Daderot/Wikimedia Commons) (click to enlarge)

“Classes at GW are so vastly different from Corcoran classes,” says McCool, highlighting the traditional, fact- and slide-based approach of GW art history classes, in comparison to some of Welt’s classes, which have included topics like dream studies, sex in US cinema, and the myth of Frankenstein in modern culture. “It’s important to keep Corcoran classes, because they provide a different outlook on art history and criticism.”

All three professors in question have taught at the Corcoran for well over a decade — Welt has taught there for 35 years. This year they’re all on one-year renewable contracts, as are the rest of the full-time Corcoran faculty.

Students are afraid they’ll not only lose some of their favorite professors, but also access to the unusual subjects they teach, which they fear will be the result of minimum enrollment requirements. If a class on Frankenstein in contemporary culture only has five students, is it still worth teaching? Many members of the Corcoran community fear that GW administrators will conclude that it’s not.

When I talked to Sethi, he assured me that this wouldn’t be the end of “weird niche classes” — a term I used first, but that he said he really liked. He suggested that cross-listing those more esoteric classes with different departments outside of the arts, or even outside the humanities, could help boost enrollment. “We need to have these weird niche classes,” he says, “but we don’t want to be a niche institution.” Sethi is all about collaboration — “not DIY, but do-it-together,” as he puts it. His vision for the school is to have engineering students taking printmaking classes with the art students, and other inter-disciplinary collaborations.

Corcoran students and faculty are also excited about collaboration, although many note that it’s sometimes hard for other GW students to register for Corcoran classes. As for the professors, everyone I spoke with is excited at the idea of collaborating across departments and disciplines — it just hasn’t happened yet. “We haven’t yet fully merged,” says Lipinski,” but that’s coming.”

“We’re all still in mourning about what happened to the Corcoran,” says Bibiana Obler, art history professor at the Columbian College. “Now we’re working on the process of transition. The umbrella of the Corcoran will make it so we’ll have a larger arts community within a larger research university.”

Merging with GW has also meant adopting its general education requirements, which many Corcoran students and faculty fear may displace either important foundation courses or the “weird niche” electives. Although students enrolled at the Corcoran before the merger (who call themselves “legacy students”) are exempt, new students will have to fulfill those dreaded math and science requirements.

An event in the old Corcoran building (photo by Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)
An event in the old Corcoran building (photo by Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)

Sethi assures me that the Corcoran curriculum couldn’t change that much, because they’ll want to keep their National Association of Schools of Art and Design accreditation. Grundberg agrees: “The widespread anxiety is that the curriculum is going to get watered down and be less rigorous, although a few years ago people complained about how it is now. I think the curriculum will be changed a lot around the edges, but the core curriculum is so basic to what art and design schools do that it’ll have to remain largely the same.”

Regardless of what happens to the curriculum, the Corcoran will always have its annual thesis exhibition, NEXT, a show that draws crowds of art-lovers from all over the mid-Atlantic, and one that often helps launch young artists’ careers.

Mourning a Shrinking Art School

No matter how much positive energy Sethi injects into the Corcoran community, the fact is that the school is shrinking. Total student enrollment at the Corcoran for fall 2014 was 404; in fall 2015, it was 294. And that’s just the students. When the Corcoran officially dissolved last year, so did the jobs of all of the museum staff and curators, the building staff, a number of professors (both full-time and adjunct), and all but a handful of college staff. Numerous students transferred to different schools, and a GW administration inexperienced with how to draw art students led to lower enrollment numbers.

“We had fewer students coming in this year, maybe 30% less,” says Lipinski, although she recognizes that the numbers had already been going down, likely due to bad publicity and an overall national trend.

“The Corcoran was giving off bad vibes long before the GW transfer happened,” says Grundberg.

Although it may be shrinking, the Corcoran community is still very tightknit, perhaps now more than ever. For one thing, all Corcoran students now have their classes and studios in the same building — the school’s 1897 Flagg Building at 17th Street and New York Avenue — whereas before there was a second campus across town for the continuing education and the graphic and interior design departments. “The quality of all being in the same building has a tangible community-creating effect,” says Altizer.

“Other students are surprised that we’re such a united and invigorated community,” says Eguino.

Among the things members of the Corcoran community say they miss about pre-GW days are the connection with the gallery, the museum collection, and the collaborative projects with the surrounding community. “So many people in DC were somehow affiliated with the Corcoran,” says Hughes. “The Corcoran was the locus of the art scene in DC, which has definitely disappeared.”

Sethi promises to bring back community engagement projects and return the Corcoran to its former glory through what he calls “teachable curricular empathy.” He wants to facilitate collaborative projects with local institutions like AIDS clinics and charter schools, or even have design students do something like create furniture for and in cooperation with area homeless shelters.

As for the museum collection, that is gone for good. “The museum was the reason why so many of us came to the Corcoran in the first place,” says Rondon. “So few art schools are connected to museums.” (There are plans to eventually reopen parts of the Corcoran building as exhibition spaces once badly needed renovations are completed.)

“I went to the National Gallery recently to see the Corcoran collection and started crying,” says Metzger.

One of the lions at the entrance to the old Corcoran Gallery and School building (photo by Ingfbruno/Wikimedia Commons)
One of the lions at the entrance to the old Corcoran Gallery and School building (photo by Ingfbruno/Wikimedia Commons)

But what the remaining members of the Corcoran community miss most are all the people who used to populate the hallways — the curators who helped teach classes and the administrators they felt were like family. Many students and faculty especially miss their old security guards, who would befriend them and even come to their critiques and shows. “It really shook the community when they were let go,” says Metzger.

At the end of my interview with Lipinski, she took me into her office and gave me a postcard of a work from the Corcoran’s former collection, saying she was able to swipe a few things from the museum gift shop before the remaining merchandise was swept into the garbage. Fittingly, the postcard features Thomas Cole’s “The Departure,” a dramatic 19th-century landscape painting depicting knights setting out on a crusade.

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