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After Merger, Corcoran Gallery of Art Faces Uncertain Future

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The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (image via Wikimedia)

On Saturday, the Corcoran Gallery of Art played host to a guerrilla funeral, not for a generous public figure or beloved artist, but for the institution itself. To outside observers, the funeral trappings — a hired hearse, Victorian mourning garb, a wreath left at William Corcoran’s grave in Oak Hill Cemetery — might seem hyperbolic. But they reflect the real loss felt by current and former faculty, staff, and students, as well as supporters of both the museum and the school, in the face of the institution’s dissolution.

Officially, the Corcoran’s not dead. But to many of the individuals in attendance on Saturday, it might as well be. George Washington University (GW) and the National Gallery of Art, the two beneficiaries of the agreement that ended the Corcoran’s existence as a single entity, have provided little additional information about their plans and the legal agreements that form the basis of the dissolution don’t provide any mechanism for community feedback on future decision-making. Having had their opinions largely ignored as the institution took its final gasps, affected members of the Corcoran community understandably fear that they will now left out of its resuscitation.

Linda Simmons_ Carolyn Campbell_ Elizabeth Punsalan by John Punsalan
Mourners at the guerilla funeral, or ‘the Public Memorial Service for the Corcoran Gallery of Art,’ organized by Linda Crocker Simmons, Corcoran Curator Emerita and memorial co-chairs Carolyn Campbell and Elizabeth Punsalan (photo by John Punsalan of the Public Memorial Service for the Corcoran Gallery of Art)

The mismanagement and failure of leadership that led to this point — “demolition by neglect,” according to the Washington Post’s Phillip Kennicott — have been documented widely in the press, and, most doggedly, by Save the Corcoran, an advocacy group made up of professors, staff, students, alumni, and other concerned community members. While Save the Corcoran’s objection to the Board’s cy prés petition didn’t prevent the dissolution, it did force a public discussion about the mismanagement that preceded the Board’s drastic decision.

While the granting of cy prés represents the end of the Corcoran as a single, independent body, it’s not the end of the story. The school, now officially operating under the umbrella of George Washington University, still has dozens of faculty and hundreds of students. Classes continue at the 17th Street building and its galleries will reopen in in the fall of 2015, but information about the National Gallery’s plans for the collection and exhibition program are sparse. GW’s long term plans for the school are equally unclear. While the legal agreements behind this process provide a framework for the distribution of assets, they don’t articulate a clear vision for the future of either of the resulting institutions —George Washington’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design or the National Gallery’s Corcoran Contemporary.

Discussion of the dissolution has focused more closely on the fate of the museum, especially its significant collection of American art. The impact of the school’s absorption by GW has received less attention.

The agreement between GW and the Corcoran dictates that current students (including thirty seven newly minted freshman) will face degree requirements that are “substantially similar” to those they were expected to fulfill at the Corcoran. They’ll also continue paying the same tuition and fees, with “modest annual increases.” The second stipulation is no small matter; the Corcoran’s 2014-2015 undergraduate tuition is $31,860, while George Washington’s incoming freshman will pay $48,700.

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Kaitlin Booher (photo curator) and vinyl cutters installing the wall text for WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY, the exhibition put on by curatorial seminar students (image courtesy of Lauren Wright)

What the institution will look like for future students (and even what types of students it will attract) is far less clear. The Corcoran’s curriculum, like most art schools, offers immediate immersion into studio classes, minimum general education requirements, and the opportunity for students to move quickly into their area of focus. GW has stated that faculty committees will be convened to examine and update the Corcoran’s curriculum. Asked if GW would consider requiring future Corcoran students to complete GW’s general education requirements, Candace Smith, GW’s Assistant Vice President for Media Relations, stated that it was too early to provide additional information.

I received a similar response to a number of other questions. Will GW’s existing arts programs be rolled into the new Corcoran department? That hasn’t been decided yet (although the legal agreement does give GW the right to do so). Will there be a new director? Yes, a national search will be launched soon, but there’s no additional information at this point.

Given the uncertainty of their situation and the alleged retaliation already faced by adjunct professor and Save the Corcoran co-founder Jayme McLellan, faculty members are understandably hesitant to talk publicly. I spoke with several current Corcoran professors and none had been approached about the formation of faculty committees. In general, they told me that they’ve been given little additional information about plans for the future of the institution. According to one faculty member I spoke with, it’s hard to tell if the current lack of communication should be interpreted as an understandable side affect of how quickly the agreement was implemented, a preview of how things are done at such a large institution, or evidence that important plans are being made without their input.

I also spoke with Camila Rondon, a Corcoran senior who is president of the Corcoran Student Association and was an active member of Save the Corcoran. According to Condon, students worry that the qualities that attracted them to the Corcoran — especially the school’s small class size, intimate feel, and relationship with the museum — will be lost once the transition is complete. Another concern for students is the assumption that NEXT — the annual exhibition of work by graduating students — will no longer grace the walls of the museum proper. Exhibiting in the museum proper was a particular draw for students. Smith told me that NEXT will still be held in the Corcoran building, which will continue to host dedicated exhibition space for the work of faculty, staff, and visiting artists, although it presumably won’t take place under the imprimatur of the National Gallery’s Corcoran Contemporary.

Grieving Canova lion by David Mordini
Corcoran lion statue shrouded in black (photo by David Mordini)

The lost connection with the museum is another concern for students. Corcoran senior Lauren Wright participated in a curatorial seminar with Corcoran curators Paul Roth and Kaitlin Booher, followed by an internship in the museum’s Curatorial Department. She worries that the split between the school and the museum will deprive future students of similar opportunities. In an email, she emphasized that the relationship was beneficial to both institutions: “The museum had just as much to be gained from the students as the students did from the museum … I hope [the NGA] will recognize that and reach out”.

For observers who fear the worst, George Washington’s past experience absorbing smaller institutions offers ample evidence for concern. In 1998, the university took over Mt. Vernon College, a small, financially troubled women’s college with a 25 acre campus in Northwest DC. Around fifty full-time professors, many of them tenured, were fired at the end of the 1999 school year, and thirteen sued George Washington for breach of contract. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2001, for an undisclosed amount of money.

Like Mt. Vernon, the Corcoran was a small, troubled institution with attractive real estate. GW is already one of the largest landowner’s in DC and the institution’s voracious appetite for development opportunities is one reason GW’s involvement with the Corcoran deal has raised eyebrows.

Procession at Oak Hill Cemetery_ photo by John Punsalan
Mourners at the guerilla funeral, or ‘the Public Memorial Service for the Corcoran Gallery of Art,’ organized by Linda Crocker Simmons, Corcoran Curator Emerita and memorial co-chairs Carolyn Campbell and Elizabeth Punsalan (photo by John Punsalan of the Public Memorial Service for the Corcoran Gallery of Art)

However, there is the potential for GW’s acquisition of the Corcoran to be something more than another addition to the school’s real estate portfolio. The school’s current president, Stephen Knapp, started at GW after ten years as provost and senior vice president at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). If GW is truly committed to preserving the Corcoran’s legacy, they might look to JHU, and its relationship with the Peabody Conservatory, for a model that could foster a rigorous, arts-focused curriculum under the umbrella of a large university. Peabody awards Bachelor of Music degrees based on a curriculum that emphasizes music courses, maintains its own admissions standards distinct from the other schools at JHU, and offers a double degree program for students who want to pursue both a degree from Peabody and a BA or BS from another school at JHU. If GW truly wants to preserve the culture and legacy of the Corcoran, a plan that allows the school to operate with a similar level of autonomy could be a good place to start.

As Kriston Capps recently argued in the Washington City Paper, the potential for future tuition hikes is also a serious threat to the Corcoran’s legacy. George Washington regularly ranks amongst the most expensive undergraduate institutions in the country – raising the Corcoran’s tuition to that level will profoundly impact the sorts of students the institution can attract.

By signing the legal agreements that form the basis of the dissolution, GW has pledged to “continue the mission, reputation, and brand” of the Corcoran College and “preserve and foster” its “culture, character, and [the] diverse nature of the [its] student body.” But, now that the agreements are signed, GW is free to interpret those expectations as it sees fit. If they truly want to honor the school’s legacy and culture, they should start by asking for input from the people who know it best: its faculty, staff, students, and alumni.

Correction, 10/6: An image caption misidentified the Corcoran student exhibition pictured — it is War/Photography, not NEXT.

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