The saga of the dissolution of the Corcoran Gallery of Art seems to have come to a close, with the remainder of its collection being redistributed this week.
Since 2012, public conflict and private negotiations have taken place over the dissolution of assets held by the Corcoran, one of Washington DC’s legacy institutions. The initial plan to sell the Beaux-Arts building in which the collection resided since its founding in 1897, and relocate the institution to the DC suburbs, was scrapped amid protest; trustees began a search for potential partners to support the goal of remaining in the deteriorating historic location, in need of an estimated $130-million renovation.
Early in 2014, the Corcoran indicated it had found partners, but not for the purpose of maintaining the museum; rather, an agreement to offer the gallery’s collection to the National Gallery and its art school and building to George Washington University was unveiled. But as the deal appeared to be on the verge of finalization, several protest organizations, including the Save the Corcoran advocacy group, filed legal briefs with the intent to block the proposed merger. The legal challenge did little more than cast suspicion on the Corcoran’s board for the financial troubles that forced the hand of the institution, and in the aftermath, the associated Corcoran School of Art struggled to find footing within the new GW structure, and any institutions that hadn’t already been licking their chops at the prospect of the redistribution of the nearly 20,000 works in the Corcoran’s collection began mentally redecorating. In 2015, the National Gallery of Art broke the seal, when it selected 6,430 works of art for purchase from the Corcoran.
In what appears to be the final chapter to this saga, on May 14, the Corcoran Art Gallery Board of Trustees announced that the roughly 10,750 works remaining in the Corcoran’s art collection will be distributed to 22 institutions across Washington and beyond in one of the largest free art distributions in US history. The announcement was accompanied by a detailed breakdown of the lucky recipients of this giveaway, with 99.4% — or 10,753 pieces — of the collection’s works to stay in Washington; that overall percentage includes the 8,631 total pieces that were previously accessioned by the National Gallery (which still picked up a few more works this week). Recipient organizations are slated to take possession of their artworks in the next few months, paying only for packing, transportation, and insurance costs — and on the condition of keeping the artwork in the city for display and for study.
The lion’s share — or about 9,000 works — of the newly redistributed pieces are headed to the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, more than doubling the size of its collection, which currently holds 6,000 works. Pieces headed to American University include works by Picasso, Rembrandt, Titian, Albrecht Dürer, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Andy Warhol, and Louise Nevelson.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum scored a healthy payload, including a Jasper Johns print, two Ansel Adams photographs, and paintings by Jane Hammond and Chris Martin. That’s the largest of seven batches of works going to various Smithsonian Institutions. Another prodigious number of works are destined for the National Museum of African American History and Culture — primarily photographs, and several paintings by Sam Gilliam. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is scoring a bevy of beautiful works, including a Depression-era photograph by Dorothea Lange, paintings by Nina Chanel Abney and Abigail Tyler Oakes, and sculptures by Marisol, Kiki Smith, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Louise Bourgeois.
The University of the District of Columbia will also be taking in dozens of works, mostly dense collections of prints by Alphonse Legros and Joseph Goldnye. Georgetown University will receive a complete 1972 Josef Albers print portfolio (Formulation: Articulation Portfolio II) and an array of Garry Winogrand photographs, in addition to a few dozen other assorted works. A number of locations are receiving just one or two pieces, like the US Department of the Treasury, or Tutor Place — typically works chosen for site-appropriate installations, such as an 1830 portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall being given to the Supreme Court of the United States. There is also a short but detailed breakdown of works going beyond Washington, with a tidy handful of works headed, for some reason, to the Montana Museum of Arts & Culture, including an undated Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting, and a sculpture attributed to “Donatello (?)”
The casting of the Corcoran’s collection to the winds of Washington DC brings a bittersweet end to a long saga — and, for students and die-hard advocates of the institution, one that is perhaps more bitter than sweet. It is notable, however, that none of the works have fallen into private collections, and the vast majority remain in the area, upholding the legacy of the Corcoran in DC in spirit, if not in situ.