Did a Corcoran Gallery memo in 1945 foretell the future?

When the board of trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art held its quarterly meeting on April 20, 1945, the members knew they had a problem.

Item No. 15 on the agenda was titled rather blandly, given its implications: “Report, National Gallery — department for contemporary American Art.” C. Powell Minnigerode, the Corcoran’s longtime director, and Jeremiah O’Connor, the veteran curator, would explain.

At the time, the National Gallery of Art had been open only four years. Created with a gift to the nation from Andrew Mellon — including art, a cash endowment and funding for a building – it was attracting more world class art from other philanthropists and already becoming a dominant force in the art life of the capital.

Until then, the Corcoran had been the most important art museum in Washington. It was founded in 1869 by William W. Corcoran and redoubled in the late 1920s by gifts from William A. Clark and his family. The art college was founded in 1890.

Confronted with this shifting balance of cultural power, Minnigerode and O’Connor thought the Corcoran’s best play was to propose exclusive spheres of influence for each institution. The Washington art world could be divided up the way Europe soon would be by the victors of World War II.

A memo to the board, dated that Friday in April, reports that three weeks before, O’Connor “had a little conference” at the Corcoran with David E. Finley, director of the National Gallery.

The memo continues:

Mr. O’Connor’s thought was that it would be desirable, if possible, for the different institutions and organizations of this city to confine themselves to some specific sphere — the National Gallery’s, of course, being primarily interested in the works of old masters; the Freer Gallery having as its chief asset the finest Oriental art in this country; the Print Division of the Library of Congress being chiefly interested in the most extensive collection of prints and etchings; the Phillips Gallery having as their main interest the so-called Modern School of painting; and, finally, the Corcoran Gallery following its traditional policy of chiefly emphasizing work by American artists.

Neat. O’Connor wrote Finley a letter elaborating the Corcoran’s view. But the National Gallery felt no need to trim its own sense of manifest destiny. As the memo continues:

Upon receipt of Mr. O’Connor’s communication, Mr. Finley invited Mr. O’Connor for luncheon on Friday, April 6th. In this conference, which was also attended by Mr. John Walker, the curator of the National Gallery of Art, Mr. O’Connor was advised that three rooms on the main floor are now devoted to works of art by American artists, and several other rooms on the lower floor, all of which are devoted to paintings by American artists. Also it is their intention to add two more large galleries on the main floor for the purpose of increasing their exhibits of work by American artists.

If, and when, this policy is carried into effect, there is no doubt but that our new National Gallery of Art will finally encroach upon the traditional field heretofore filled by this institution, and the case which now arises is as to whether or not it would be possible to reach any kind of understanding by which this unfortunate situation might be avoided.

Ouch. The memo shows an early self-awareness that the Corcoran must protect a distinct identity — and that its identity must center on American art, despite all the admirable European paintings and Asian objects also in the collection. Identity crises would plague the Corcoran for the next 69 years. Succeeding generations of trustees, directors and curators would always hold out American art as essential to the solution, more recently along with photography, contemporary art and commitment to home-grown art-making. And yet, here in 1945, the battle for identity was already being lost.

Agenda for a meeting of the Corcoran board April 20, 1945, at which the National Gallery of Art was discussed.
Agenda for a meeting of the Corcoran board April 20, 1945, at which the National Gallery of Art was discussed.

Looking back, the Corcoran’s current leadership considers the creation of the National Gallery as a signal moment in the ultimate doom of the Corcoran. As the Corcoran’s lawyer argued in recent court filings, the National Gallery’s location on the Mall and its taxpayer-subsidized free admission are  difficult to compete with.

Now, after a decade of deepening budget deficits and a series of failed rescue attempts, the Corcoran is seeking approval in D.C. Superior Court to permit a final resolution to the identity crisis: George Washington University will take over the art college, and the National Gallery will take over the art.

The National Gallery! Hello old rival.

A group of Corcoran supporters maintains the Corcoran can still thrive independently and has filed a motion to block the move.

Back in 1945, alert to a new presence in the art world, did the Corcoran’s leaders sense that “our new National Gallery of Art” might one day take over the Corcoran?

There is a tone of resignation in a final memo, also dated April 20, 1945:

The Director reported to the Board that the National Gallery of Art, in this city, was now showing American art in quite an extensive way and was preparing to enlarge its display of contemporary American paintings. They had already secured examples by some outstanding American artists, such as Winslow Homer, Whistler, George Inness, John S. Sargent, George Bellows, and others. While there can be no question as to their right to enter this field, their action in so doing would conflict with the traditional policy of this Gallery.

Records of the meeting end there. That was the first attempt to “save the Corcoran.”

David Montgomery writes general features, profiles and arts stories for the Sunday Magazine and Style, including pieces on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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