At Corcoran, a tumultuous week takes its toll

February 21, 2014

Corcoran College of Art and Design students protest outside a law firm at 15th and I Streets NW where they thought the board of trustees was meeting in April 2013. – Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST

The Corcoran has painted itself into a corner. This week, the nearly 150-year-old gallery and its adjoining art school announced a deal that puts the future of both in question, potentially sucking the proverbial soul out of one of the city’s most important arts communities. They had to, in order to prevent financial ruin. But even for casual observers, the news was devastating.

In a sense, the Corcoran was the people’s gallery. If you grew up in the area, you probably took a class there or knew someone who did. And its regular displays of contemporary works by local artists, both amateur and professional, made even one of the fanciest buildings in town feel down to earth every once in a while.

Coincidentally, the announcement of the Corcoran’s turning over to the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University came nearly a year to the day after the opening of an exhibit embodied almost everything the original ethos of the facility represented. Roger Gastman’s “Pump Me Up,” a collection of ’80s and ’90s D.C. memorabilia and paraphernalia is the type of thing that no other place would likely hold.

And for many people, the Corcoran was the vessel through which art became accessible. Hannah Ratner  expressed that Thursday on Facebook. “I don’t know how to process the news about the Corcoran. All I seem able to do is remember taking classes over the summers … in high school,” Ratner, 32, a D.C. native and employee at Shakespeare Theatre Company wrote. “Lugging big black portfolios, drawing, painting and spending time in the dark room, jealous of the people who got to spend all their time in those art-filled halls.”

As a young art student myself in high school, our senior projects were displayed for a day at the museum, albeit in the basement. It was one of the most empowering feelings I can remember. Now, every time I walk in to the museum I think of how proud I was lugging my old Visual Systems portfolio down New York Avenue to put my work on display.

Not everyone has such a rosy of the view.

“Let’s not build the Corcoran in its current state and the state it’s been in the last several years into something it isn’t. It is not a Top 10 arts school, it’s probably not a Top 20 art school,” Tyler Green, editor of Modern Art Notes, columnist for Modern Painters, said, while noting that the editor of his podcast is a Corcoran grad.

“It’s sad. But it’s been a long time since the Corcoran was a place of significance,” he said.

But for those on the ground now, the last few days have been a mix of confusion, concern and anger. The news marks the end of years of a shadowy process that had students and staff on edge for some time. One gallery staffer explained how hurt she felt when it finally became official.

“There’s a huge sense of paranoia and just an incredibly toxic environment there, that’s been created over a long, sustained period of time. I’ve been emotionally preparing for this for a long time. We’ve been in the same period of instability and crisis for a long time. Two years, at least. I’ve gone through the total emotional wringer with it,” said the staffer, who asked that her name not be printed.  “For me, I felt almost numb when it all came clear.”

The staff were all mainly informed in a less than hour long meeting that ended with a rather short 10-minute Q&A session. That went for people working there for decades as well as those more recently hired.

“The staff meeting was a total dog and pony show. I’m watching everyone’s faces and just feeling really sad. As much as everyone thinks they’ve been really emotionally beaten down and disrespected and kind of known in the back of their minds maybe that it was going to come. The hallmark of the Corcoran employee is their selflessness. and their subjugating their own welfare for the good of what they do,” the staffer added.  She doesn’t expect to have a job in 3 months.

“While hands were still waving in the air and questions were still needing to be answered, [Peggy Loar, interim director and President of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design]  literally said, ‘alright, we’ve got to close it up now.’ And the meeting was over. It was so, really, just depressing. Disappointing. It was not surprising. because again, I had felt undervalued and disrespected there for a long time.”

For students, the circumstance was certainly baffling. After finding out via e-mail about the changes, a meeting was called in the downtown campus auditorium Thursday afternoon. Doing his best, Interim Provost and Chief Academic Officer Dr. William Richardson answered questions from an increasingly angered student body. He was the only person from either the school or George Washington University there in an official capacity.

A situation that one freshman found to be rather lame. “I thought it was very unprofessional of the existing board to send out the newbie. He did the best he could with answering questions,” Kara Mason, a mixed media artist, said. She came to the Corcoran through a high school program in Norfolk.  She’d wanted to be in a city and found the school to be a perfect fit. Now she’s not sure what to think.

“I think we’re all a little upset. Corcoran is a very tight knit family,” Mason, 19, said. “And I’ve gathered that only being here since late August. They’re very wise and very into the Corcoran. So I think we’re all just very bummed out. We’re very upset because I think the university knew it was going to buy us over, and then the board was like we’re going to be very transparent, We’re going to let you all in on what’s going on, And then coming back from break we get hit with this. I think we’re all very upset with the board. And just very confused overall.”

With more meetings planned over the next few days, the students want some more say in the new process. But the provost won’t be at the school for long and neither will the president and much of the board. A group of students from the new media photojournalism program has banded together to create a list of demands. The goal is to foster an actual conversation. Not just create a reactionary environment that leaves everyone hurt.

One of those students is Caroline Lacey. She went to University of Maryland as an undergraduate and loves the quirky vibe of Corcoran’s school. The students  just want to be heard. “Right now I feel like they’ve made this big announcement, but it really doesn’t mean that much yet because we’re not sure of any of those details. Which are the important ones,” Lacey, a Bethesda native, said Thursday.

“I think right now … we can put our voice out there and say this is what makes the Corcoran special. Listen to us. Listen to why this community works and listen to what attracts this kind of student here. … I just want everyone that I’ve grown to love and care about here to have the environment where they feel safe and where they have resources and can teach in this very human and intimate way that they have been.”

Thursday afternoon at lunch, the cafe tables in the atrium were buzzing with chatter. Every once in a while, people emerged from the mystery doors along the walls with badges and odd looks on their faces. As groups of kids walked around and servers delivered soups and salads to the well-heeled diners, an installation flickered constantly on the south wall.

A black and white light display featured messages scrolling horizontally. Some flashed, some didn’t. But the messages were pertinently ominous. “It’s better to be naive than jaded. Killing is unavoidable but nothing to be proud of. Lack of charisma can be fatal. Morals are for little people.” But one particular phrase was impossible to ignore.

“Faithfulness is a social not a biological law.”

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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