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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 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) (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)

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)

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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Elena Goukassian

Elena Goukassian is an arts writer based in Brooklyn. Originally from Bulgaria, she grew up in Washington state and lived in Washington, DC before moving to New York in 2017. Her writing has also appeared...

6 replies on “More Than a Year After the Dissolution of the Corcoran, Its Art School Still Struggles in a New Home”

  1. As a legacy student and senior year student at the Corcoran, I just want to say that the level os stress at this point at the Corcoran is extreme. This year I found myself literally ready to transfer to another school. At this point I consider GW my worst enemy. An institution that I don’t want to be friends with. This institution is damaging my education more than ever.

  2. The writer astutely points out what many of us saw as the death
    knell for the Corcoran School when it was “taken over by” not merged with GW. She
    finds an apt illustration of the betrayal of what the original school stood for in GW’s brochure, “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.”

    Surprising, though, were the inaccuracies and contradictions
    made by some people interviewed for this article. For example, “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.” I am not
    sure if Mr. Grundberg was out of the country for the two years running up to
    the D.C. Superior Court dissolving the Corcoran Gallery and School, but the school
    was hardly “tossed in GW’s lap”. In fact, far in advance of the judge’s ruling,
    GW officials had been negotiating with the Corcoran Trustees and the Interim Director to take over the school. I am also not so sure the school was an “unwanted baby” seeing as, along with the millions of dollars guaranteed in paid Corcoran student tuition, GW also got for free, the highly acclaimed Beaux Arts building on 17th street valued at $200 million, plus $50 million in cash from sales of works of
    art from the Corcoran’s collection. Forgive me if I also don’t see the “huge amount of extra work” for the GW administration when they were well aware of the investment on their part when they sealed this lucrative deal in advance.

    A significant red flag that GW had very little intention of leveraging the Corcoran’s former reputation or promoting its curriculum was the alarming failure to attract future students; “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. Numerous students transferred to different schools, and a GW administration inexperienced with how to draw art students led to lower enrollment numbers.”

    These were just some of reasons cited in the article. Others were GW’s tuition (one of the highest in the country); the gutted Corcoran arts program and the well documented alienation of existing Corcoran students and faculty. Hardly a lure to attract potential students. Most of all, there are many other more financially attractive options available to students, including much lower tuition at such top ranked institutions such as the Maryland Institute College of Art located only 35 miles away in Baltimore, Maryland.

    “The Corcoran was giving off bad vibes long before the GW transfer happened,” says Grundberg. This statement would have benefited from some clarification, but it might have been edited out. Maybe the decades of mismanagement by the Trustees and leadership that was thoroughly covered by the press as well as stated in courtroom testimony led to the decline and “bad vibes” Mr. Grundberg refers.

    The article further describes the slow death of the beloved Corcoran legacy, “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.”… 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.”

    And many are still mourning the death, a little over a year ago, of the venerable
    Corcoran Gallery and School of Art.

    http://www.campbellcomm.biz

  3. Thank you for continuing to write about The Corcoran.

    The conservatory-style education The Corcoran represented is about creating a bubble of safety where students can make lots of horrible, ugly choices (so many!), break and repair, test and try, play and collaborate and eventually refine and defend a body of work that represents what they have learned and are proud to share. This requires a very intentional environment.

    Building a house for art and the education of artists right next to the home of the president is bold. Mr. Corcoran was definitely making a statement about the value of art and artists in America. The building is designed to impress and not only demand respect for the works of art it contains but for the education of artists within. This is intentional.

    To walk the marble halls of The Corcoran as a student and spend hours on end with exceptional examples works of art from various eras is to understand that art is continuum. To go immediately from the gallery into a studio a few steps away is to feel you are a part of that continuum. This is intentional.

    To study at The Corcoran was to be surrounded entirely by people (like Welt and Smith) who all shared if nothing else, a true respect for the arts. To educate artists in an place where they do not have to constantly justify that art is valuable, is intentional.

    Sadly there was one crucial group that did not share in this understanding, those with the pursestrings. However, they understood just enough.They understood, that those in the midst of serious study of art (faculty and staff inclusive) just want to do their art and spend as much time as possible thinking and talking art because they appreciate that such time is precious. They paid handsomely to be able to put their energy into defending work and ideas in critiques rather than defending the importance of being able to do so to the very people whose role it was to protect this environment.

    The root of the word conservatory is conserve: to protect (something, especially an environmentally or culturally important place or thing) from harm or destruction. The long list of board members and directors who sold off The Corcoran for parts are simply thieves.

    The Corcoran was a specialized environment designed to protect the development of and this creates brave, resilient people who know how to learn. They are trained in making connections between the material world and that of emotions and ideas. You will find former art students in all kinds of workplaces not necessarily because they couldn’t “make it” as an artist but because they have skills that are highly transferrable that bring value to a lot of different contexts. The real tragedy is that our country lost one of the few institutions to offer this type of education.

    Wow. That became an essay. I guess your article just brought up lots of feelings and I don’t know where else anyone would care 🙁

    Mica Scalin – Photography BFA 1995
    AnotherLimitedRebellion.com

  4. I’m glad to have graduated from the Corcoran in 2011. I got the experience that the school intended, before it REALLY devolved into stress and headaches. I can’t even imagine what the student body will be like in 3 years. My freshman year, we lived around a bunch of GW students, and even interacting with them was strange and awkward for most of us. The Corcoran was an enclave — a bubble — where even if you didn’t like everyone, you at least trusted them to have some sort of respect for you and what you were doing, no matter how stupid or outlandish it was. The idea of having engineering students side by side with people who actually take the production of art seriously is the antithesis of that experience. You dilute the rigor of your classes if you’re going to throw in people who see art as a hobby with people who pursue art as a career. I went to the Corcoran — the kids we hated the most were the ones who obviously didn’t take what we were doing seriously. That’s not to say your work had to be serious, but your work ethic surely should have been.

    At that, could you IMAGINE going to art school and being required to take GenEd courses? Math and Science? Freshman and sophomore year of college at the Corcoran were so jam packed with assignments and classes and projects — I’d never been so stressed before in all my life. And yet, I’d do it all over again, if I could do it the same way. But there’s no way to achieve that same experience, and also require students to sit in a lecture hall with 100 other kids, supposedly learning math and science. The time spent on that will eliminate experiences I treasured, like the 12 hours it took me to figure out how to construct strip-lighting out of bristol board in the middle of the night, or figuring out how to weld in the dungeon-like basement. The stress and rigor of our first two years were formative experiences. Many of us spent 36 hours at a time, on site, in order to get our work done before critiques — and those kinds of interpersonal bonds are the ones that made the Corocran community throughout DC and elsewhere so tight. It’s a shame to see it come to this.

    The new guy Sanjit seems well meaning, but he also seems like exactly what GW would pick — someone full of corporate west-coast buzz-words and synergistic nuspeak. Do-it-yourself… do-it-together… It didn’t matter at the Corcoran. We did both. So long as you did it. And that’s where GW is going to fuck it up. At a huge university, it doesn’t matter if you attend your classes… so long as you make it to the midterm and final. At the Corcoran, you couldn’t miss more than 2 classes without automatically failing. Is that engineering student who’s taking printmaking on the side to fill up an elective with an “easy” class REALLY going to worry about his printmaking assignments, when he’s probably got a fuck-ton of calculus to do and some Auto-CAD drawings to make (or whatever it is engineering students do)? No.

    I wouldn’t recommend the Corcoran to any prospective art student anymore. Especially not when MICA is 30 minutes away. Baltimore may not be as nice a city as DC, but at least they have some sort of respect for their students, and their curriculums, and are relatively well-regarded among other artists. Going to the Corcoran now will be like going to the University of Oklahoma to study art, except prohibitively expensive, and in a much older building. With faculty like Bernard and Casey gone — without the awesome security guards who could cheer you up after a stressful day — without the bubble-like-ecosystem of the art school and that forced curation that came with interacting with other people who were as invested as you were in the same kinds of things — you might as well go to a state school and be just another weirdo in the crowd. At least it’d be cheaper.

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