Touring an exhibition of student art at the Corcoran College of Art and Design on Thursday morning, University of Maryland at College Park President Wallace D. Loh posed in front of a monumental collage and instructed his spokesman to take a picture.
“I want to tweet it!” Loh exclaimed, and he later did so.
It was Day One of the unusual — and in some quarters controversial — partnership between the huge public research university (37,000 students) and the financially struggling college (570 students) and the related Corcoran Gallery of Art. And things seemed to be off to a good start.
“This is a great exhibit,” Loh said of NEXT at the Corcoran, a display of the work of 90 undergraduate senior thesis projects and (upcoming) 95 master’s degree projects. Corcoran lovers consider the annual NEXT show as symbolic of how Washington’s oldest private art museum, located a few blocks from the White House, can be relevant in a new artistic era.
Loh, a former law professor born in China and raised in Peru, did not explain exactly what he liked about the untitled 12-foot-tall banner by Deshaundon Jeanes. It depicts repeated images of sexy shirtless cowboys arranged in the shape of a pistol pointed at the bottom of a Native American garment. Spilling from the top of the garment are blank white stick figures that tumble into the open maw of a crazy George Washington head mounted upon a Cookie Monster body. A stuck-on magazine cover says, “Culturally Appropriate Assessment,” and “One Size Does Fit All.”
Loh nodded enthusiastically as college exhibitions director Joe Hale explained that Jeanes’s work examines colonialism and empire, and that the artist “religiously doesn’t buy materials” but instead uses discarded supplies.
From tweeting anti-imperialist art, the tour quickly moved to “search engine semiotics culture” addressed by another student’s Tumblr-ing display, and then to video, photography, installation and performance pieces.
By then, Loh, Corcoran Gallery Chairman Harry F. Hopper III and newly appointed consulting director Peggy Loar were off to the races — talking about the many potential intersections of art and technology and about all the ways Maryland and the Corcoran could collaborate at those intersections.
“It’s really, I think, a partnership of equals, not in size, but equals in terms of intellectual and artistic contribution,” said Loh.
For now, the partnership is nonbinding, and details are scarce pending completion of a legal agreement expected this summer.
Loh, Hopper and Loar had met earlier with faculty and staff to impart their gung-ho enthusiasm. But some still need to be convinced. The point of view of skeptics — who Fear the Turtle and think the partnership will lead to the Corcoran disappearing inside Maryland’s complex structure — was alluded to by senior Judas Recendez in his thesis on display.
The work includes posters spelling out “4SALE” and origami pigs printed with the salaries of Corcoran executives. Hale eased the tour group past the pigs without comment. Loh did not appear to notice.
Eventually, Loh had to go. Loar continued walking around and shaking hands with any Corcoran employee she met: “Hi, I’m Peggy.”
A native of Cincinnati, Loar most recently was director of the National Museum of Qatar. She has held other top museum positions in the United States and was director of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
The passionate criticism of some of the Corcoran’s moves is a sign of deep love for the Corcoran, she said, adding that she is optimistic she can win over detractors.
Loar will stay on the job through the fall as partnership details are finalized and will not vie to become the permanent Corcoran director after that, she said.
The morning ended with Hopper showing Loar one of his favorite parts of the historic museum. It’s an obscure staircase off the library leading up to a small sky-lit studio. Some staircase walls have been decorated with colorful murals painted by students who won a competition for the honor.
But some walls are still blank, waiting to be painted by future students. They are an emblem of the unfinished, evolving Corcoran, Hopper said.