They come to bury the Corcoran, not to praise it

Let’s set aside, for a moment, the legalistic language, as confusing in some passages as the fine print on a credit card application. And let’s forget the euphemistic language, bordering on the mendacious, in the reiteration of words such as “collaboration” and “partnership.” Let’s look for a nugget of goodness in Thursday’s announcement of new details about how the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University will devour the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Some of the teaching staff at the Corcoran will be given one-year contracts at GWU. Tuition won’t rise substantially for current and incoming 2014 students at the Corcoran College of Art and Design; it is unclear what will happen for students who enroll in the future. And 20 members of the museum staff, including all of the Corcoran’s curators, will be offered positions for at least a year at the National Gallery of Art. To this extent, the human cost of the Corcoran’s evisceration has been minimized, although dozens of Corcoran employees will lose their jobs.

And one more strange, interesting detail: A stained-glass window, created by the Flemish artist Jan de Caumont in the 17th century, will be sent back to the abbey in Belgium from which it was originally removed, if the abbey can raise the funds for its repatriation. This work of art (which is not in a room the public can access) may return to its original context, and that is a good thing.

But the deeper values surrounding art that make the window’s possible return something to celebrate are the same ones that make the dismemberment of the Corcoran such a distressing turn of events.

The window in question was taken from the Park Abbey in Leuven, Belgium, where it was once a part of a series detailing the life of Saint Norbert. According to a scholarly article published in 2003, the monks of the abbey sold the windows in 1828 after falling on hard times in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In 1993, a group devoted to restoring the abbey acquired two of the series at Sotheby’s in New York; another fragment was returned in 1937, and three complete windows were returned to the abbey in 1971.

Thus, a series of interrelated images is slowly being reconstituted, and a building that was pillaged of its treasures is being made whole. A narrative is being reassembled and a work of art recontextualized.

It is the narrative and the context of the Corcoran as a museum and art school, however, that are being permanently broken apart. There were few surprises about the fate of the Corcoran in Thursday’s announcement. Its collection will be handed over to the National Gallery of Art, which will keep what it wants; the Corcoran will dispose of the rest. The parties involved intend to keep as much of the collection in Washington as possible. But as with so many details in the material released Thursday, everything is carefully parsed. They hope to keep the art in Washington, but no promises.

No clear promises, either, on what kind of public access will be given to the famed Salon Doré, which was part of the same William A. Clark bequest that brought the stained-glass window to the Corcoran. It is in a part of the building that is to be used by the university, and it’s not clear how feasible it will be to grant regular access to most museum visitors. We also know there will be a net loss of exhibition space in the historic building on 17th Street. We know nothing about what the promised “Corcoran Legacy Gallery” will look like, what it will contain or precisely where it will be.

We know for certain, however, that the Corcoran as an organic institution, as a collection of art and artifacts with a specific and local history, bound up with generations of local memory, integrated into Washington’s cultural life as a place for art distinct from the buttoned-down National Gallery and the burnished brilliance of the Phillips Collection, is being dissolved.

Art isn’t just about objects. It is also about place and people, and the interrelationship of objects. Anyone who has lived a long time in a city with a good art museum knows the feeling of disorientation when someone moves the collection around, when particular treasures go into institutional hiding, when some particularly beloved object is sent off on a world tour.

The monks in Leuven must have felt some sharp pangs when their life of Norbert was sold off. Although the National Gallery and other parties are insisting that the Corcoran collection will still be open and available to the public, they are seriously underestimating the intangibles lost in this vivisection. What was assembled by William Corcoran, greatly enlarged by William Clark and stewarded by an independent, idiosyncratic and sometimes cantankerous community of scholars, curators and art lovers will never exist in the same form again.

All of this is what makes the euphemism of Thursday’s announcement so depressing, and so contrary to the values expressed in the admirable decision to return the de Caumont window to Belgium. This is no collaboration; it is an absorption. This is not a partnership; it is a transfer of assets.

In the news release made public Thursday, there is a silly insistence that the name “Corcoran” will continue to exist, and that the Corcoran board — which allowed the institution as an independent organization to die — will be an ongoing entity. But there are no details about what the Corcoran board will do, and there is a lamentable, even magical belief that perpetuating the name Corcoran without perpetuating the Corcoran itself will assuage anyone who remembers the institution fondly. More likely, it will be a bitter reminder that a once great collection, so well endowed with art, so well situated, so thoroughly woven into the city’s history and social life, was allowed to expire, as if nowhere in this region of great wealth, in this city of immense ambition, could someone have found a way to save it.

Euphemism repels the ear because it is lazy and dishonest. “Collaboration” and “partnership” are buzzwords beloved by the corporate and institutional worlds. Art people have no business using them, especially when they are not remotely applicable to the situation.

Perpetuating a name that is hollow is another form of dishonesty, and again, art people should stand apart from this sort of easy and casual abuse of language. More troubling is the idea that the National Gallery believes that putting the words “Corcoran Collection” on the label of a work of art once owned by the Corcoran will mean a fig to anyone who visits the museum. It won’t, any more than, say, the words “Chester Dale Collection” on a label means anything to anyone other than a scholar pursuing the social history of art collecting. It suggests that the National Gallery doesn’t even understand what people care about when they look at art.

No, that’s too harsh. What it really indicates is that everyone involved in releasing these details has a particular audience in mind, and that audience isn’t the general public. It is the lawyers and the court that will oversee the dissolution of the Corcoran. The reassurances that the name will continue isn’t really meant for anyone in Washington who once loved the Corcoran. The idea that the board of directors will continue to further William Corcoran’s vision of an institution “Dedicated to Art and Encouraging American Genius” will only nauseate those who know its past performance.

These promises may help smooth things over with the lawyers, but nobody else will believe them. And the people who understand that returning an old abbey’s windows to their rightful home in Belgium is a good thing shouldn’t pretend that we believe these assurances. The dissonance is too artful.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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