The Corcoran Gallery is going away just as its mission is more important than ever

Recent leaders of the Corcoran Gallery of Art complained of its location on 17th Street NW, off the Mall and far from the National Gallery of Art and the principal venues of the Smithsonian. But in 1859, when William Wilson Corcoran broke ground on the first home of the Corcoran — the ornate red-brick building that now houses the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery — proximity to the White House was part of the new museum’s essential message.

Art would guide politics, forge an American identity, spur patriotic sentiment, reform morals and instill a sense of excellence in the nation’s leaders. As a journalist wrote at the time, art and ideas would “permeate the body politic at home” and perhaps, with time, even Congress would be dissuaded by art from “political measures of doubtful policy.”

When the Corcoran School of Art was added to the gallery in 1890 and both moved a block away to the imposing 1897 stone building they still occupy — at least until April, when a “rescue” plan calls for the Corcoran’s art collection to be devoured by the National Gallery and the school to be absorbed into George Washington University — there was a seamless and organic unity to the whole project. Art was about looking, learning and making; the study of art was not divorced from ideas about traditional morality, governance and religion; and the whole enterprise was woven into Washington’s social life, the city’s national ambitions and the country’s imperial aspirations to greatness.

Location was so important to Corcoran, who both prospered and failed in business before making his fortune, that he had his portrait painted with the Renwick building over his right shoulder and the Capitol behind his left shoulder. William Stone’s circa-1870 portrait isn’t a great painting and doesn’t make any geographic sense, but it embodies the Corcoran’s twofold purpose: to guide the nation through art and to prove to the world that Americans were capable of producing art at the highest level.

It is exactly this kind of painting — deeply tied to Washington, rich in local history and meaning — that is most in peril as the Corcoran is broken apart, its collection scattered, its community dispersed.

The grandeur of the Corcoran’s original mission has long since been overtaken by history. American artists no longer enter the international art market insecure about their parvenu status on the world stage. And no one, especially not politicians, believes that art plays the central role that Corcoran imagined for it in 1860s and ’70s. When it comes to art in America, there has been both a triumph and a failure of confidence: American artists are second to none, in a country where art has become marginal.

Many of the sad chapters in the final quarter-century of the Corcoran’s independent existence make more sense when seen against this larger shift in the status of art in American cultural life. Ever since the controversy over a 1989 exhibition that included homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe inaugurated a quarter-century of terminal chaos at the Corcoran, the institution has struggled to find a new purpose and identity that was meaningful to contemporary audiences and donors while staying true to Corcoran’s original vision. The old ideals should have been enough, and perhaps with enlightened leadership they could have sustained the institution, but history moves fast and the dream of William Wilson Corcoran was trampled beneath ugly new realities.

In 1835, when Corcoran was still in his 30s, Alexis de Tocqueville devoted a chapter of “Democracy in America” to the subject of art, and it contains one of his more pessimistic assessments of our national character. “They habitually put use before beauty, and they want beauty itself to be useful,” he wrote with freakish prescience. This was a symptom of free society in which no one was obliged to follow his father’s footsteps, no lasting legacy of craftsmanship congealed in the democratic churn and it was more profitable to sell many shoddy things to a wide market than a few finely crafted ones to an aristocratic elite. Democratic society was too fluid, too unstable, to form the social conditions ripe for art.

Tocqueville might have been describing Corcoran’s early life history. His first business venture succumbed to the Panic of 1823; the bank he then worked for went belly-up five years later. Not until 1847 did he pay back $46,000 (with interest) to his creditors. But the Mexican-American War made him wealthy, and he retired in 1854. He lived the ups and downs of democracy — including, as a Southern sympathizer, a period of quasi-exile during the Civil War — and might have been sympathetic to Tocqueville’s analysis of why it was difficult to create the groundwork for art in America, if not his often dim view of democracy.

When the Corcoran opened in the 1870s, major museums were also being formed in Boston and New York, precisely to give gravity and solidity to the nation’s artistic ambitions. A critical mass of art, including plaster casts of the great statues of antiquity, would create a stable, solid base of knowledge upon which art could be cultivated at a higher level. Soon, they were haunted by “lady-copyists,” learning from the originals, demonstrating the need and desire for more formal art education.

But almost from the beginning, there was a tension built into the Corcoran’s organic enterprise. New generations of even more extravagant wealth than Corcoran’s would pillage the treasures of Europe for American collections. A master narrative of Great Art would turn museums into temples, with their schools playing a secondary role or eliminated altogether. When you could afford a genuine marble statue from Greece, why clutter your museum with cheap plaster replicas, which were compared to “pianola” music, second-order imitations?

American art didn’t fit easily into this master narrative. Corcoran’s collection of 19th century landscapes, genera scenes and American stabs at classical statuary was dismissed by some contemporaries as a bunch of “nudities and crudities.” A 1912 history of art in Washington mocked the original gallery’s “perversions of proportion” and condescended to the “magnificent ignorance” of the Hudson River School painters in the collection.

Longtime observers of the Corcoran locate the beginning of its troubles much further back than the drama of the past 25 years. Some point to the founding of the National Gallery of Art in 1937, an institution that would embody the master narrative of great art, appeal to precisely the sort of art lover who slighted Corcoran’s homegrown taste and divorce art appreciation from art making. Others point to the rise of university art programs in the region during the 1930s and ’40s as another nail in the coffin.

At least as important were fundamental changes in art itself, away from representation, didactic moralizing, sentiment and nostalgia. American artists, in the middle of the last century, played a major role in this evolution, but these changes were only faintly registered at the Corcoran.

Many of the crises of the Corcoran’s last chapter are easily explained as efforts at reinvention that came too late and without a coherent mandate throughout the institution. When the museum canceled “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment” in 1989 over fear of a homophobic conservative backlash, the gallery’s then-director Christina Orr-Cahall said: “Our institution has always remained outside of the political arena, maintaining a position of neutrality on all such issues.”

That wasn’t quite right. The Corcoran had once seen itself as a guide to politicians, a moral exemplar. But the trends in art since the 1940s had alienated many people, including many conservative politicians, from art in general. In a way, the Mapplethorpe show was true to Corcoran’s mission — challenging audiences, including politicians, to see the world in new ways. But the political class that had once flocked to openings and galas at the Corcoran was no longer interested in, or receptive to, art.

The damage to the Corcoran was incalculable. Orr-Cahall left, local artists and donors were alienated from the institution and years of chaotic leadership ensued.

The decision in 2005 to suspend fundraising efforts for a $170 million addition to the Corcoran designed by Frank Gehry was also disastrous, a huge gamble followed by total embarrassment. But the idea, championed by then-director David Levy, was another effort at reinvention, another attempt to recapture the civic and national ambition latent in the Corcoran’s original mission.

Levy, whose curatorial instincts tended to the lowbrow and populist, framed the Gehry addition within an art-world context newly dependent on flash, sizzle and buzz: “I saw it as a catalyst, a way of transforming a gray old institution. That’s what set us apart,” he said at the time.

It might have worked, although it would have meant demolishing part of the old building and would likely have remade the institution permanently in the model of Levy’s curatorial taste for showmanship. But again, there wasn’t total support for the idea among the museum’s supporters and board, who were not among the city’s most illustrious, ambitious, wealthy and farsighted citizens. Again, the loss of morale, prestige, goodwill and money was disastrous.

The seeds of the Corcoran’s demise may have been sown years, decades or even a century ago, but the end has come in the here and now, managed by people still entrusted with its care and perpetuation. The irony of its final destruction is this: Corcoran’s original premise has never been more important. The integration of art into daily and political life remains an unfulfilled ideal of American culture. The need for art that “subdues and reforms our coarse materialism,” as one flowery 1874 paean to Corcoran put it, has never been more urgent. Educators are more keenly aware than ever of the need for a coherent art curriculum that integrates looking and making.

And the Corcoran’s collection, even those “nudities and crudities,” is newly relevant to scholars studying art through the lens of social history, race, gender and identity. Important recent exhibitions of American art show how far we have come toward rehabilitating the genre paintings and the “magnificent ignorance” of our 19th-century landscape artists. The creation of museums such as Crystal Bridges in Arkansas demonstrate how the narrative of American art can be told without condescension.

Will the National Gallery of Art be alert to this as it swoops in for the greatest door-buster sale in living memory?

“Our team of scholars and curators is deeply knowledgeable about American art and American history, but at this point we can’t say what we’ll take,” said Deborah Ziska, the gallery’s chief of press and public information. “It is too early in the process. It wouldn’t be appropriate.”

What will become of that Stone portrait of Corcoran, which is important mainly within the context of the Corcoran’s local history?

And what will become of Daniel Huntington’s “Mercy’s Dream,” a gauzy, sentimental Victorian allegory that is listed as Corcoran’s first known acquisition of an American painting? Even today, it’s hard to be entirely sympathetic to the infantile spirituality of the work, which shows Mercy embodied as a beautiful young woman being crowned by a luminous angel descending through a dark sky. It is based on John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” once essential reading for Protestants, and for Huntington a source of non-Catholic religious imagery during a vigorously anti-Catholic era of American history. “Mercy’s Dream” was popular in its day, and widely reproduced (the Corcoran’s version is from 1850), but next to the contemporaneous work of Courbet, Corot and Millais, it can seem a trivial painting.

In the context of the Corcoran, it is anything but. The narrative of American art has been messy, chaotic and contradictory, full of works like “Mercy’s Dream” that are only now being understood in the larger arc of American cultural aspiration. The Corcoran’s collection embodies that messiness. One hopes the National Gallery will have mercy on it, too, and keep it among its brethren, in an intact Corcoran collection open to study and appreciation for generations to come.

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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