The end of the Corcoran Gallery of Art

If the Corcoran Gallery of Art had to be swallowed up by a larger and healthier institution to survive, we might celebrate Wednesday’s announcement that its collection will be devoured by the National Gallery of Art. The National Gallery is hands down the most prestigious and respected steward of fine art in Washington, and its reputation is international. But this is not a swallowing of the Corcoran — this is the end of the Corcoran and its final dismemberment.

Everything that was darkly whispered about the Corcoran’s board over the past few years has come to pass: After decades of erratic and often incompetent leadership, it has seen the institution through to its demise. They will hand over the art to the National Gallery, which will take the pick of the lot and then distribute the rest through some program yet to be announced. A small “legacy” gallery featuring beloved works closely associated with the soon-to-be-defunct Corcoran brand will be maintained somewhere in the old building, which will be given to George Washington University. GWU will absorb the college and teaching functions. As a legal entity, the Corcoran will continue, although this will consist primarily of an advisory board and a name on the wall of the museum building on 17th Street NW.

The vast majority of people who visit Washington will never know the difference, and arguably will be better served by the new post-Corcoran arrangement. The National Gallery will use the second-floor space at the old Corcoran to mount exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, greatly expanding its gallery space, and, one hopes, its dedication to contemporary art. The liquidation of the Corcoran’s collection may bring individual works of art more exposure, both at the National Gallery and at whatever museums or institutions take in what the NGA doesn’t want. The current plan is to place as many works as possible in Washington museums, but much of the collection could end up in Tennessee or Alaska.

The collection as a living entity is gone, and so, too, the Corcoran as an independent presence in Washington cultural life. The quirks of the old gallery, founded in 1869 as Washington’s first art museum, will disappear. Any lingering sense of the Corcoran’s collection as the expression of William Wilson Corcoran’s aesthetic taste, any reflection of the giants of Washington cultural life who also left their art in its care, will vanish. The eccentricities of the Corcoran’s staff and curators, the peculiar feistiness of the place that arose from its dual mission as a college and gallery, all of that will be gone, too.

But let’s take a moment to think about the people of the Corcoran, who have stuck with it through years of tumultuous and often obscenely inept leadership. The National Gallery can’t say whether it will hire any of them, although a spokeswoman stressed that the partners of the new arrangement are just beginning to work out the details.

One hopes that the National Gallery, which will benefit greatly from the art it will soon own, will be able to offer harbor to the curators and conservators and support staff who depend for their livelihood on the Corcoran’s employment. We are so bitterly benumbed by our economy of wealth and wreckage that it’s all too easy to think of unemployment as a trifling consequence of progress. But this doesn’t feel like progress, and the impact on the lives of many dedicated and intelligent people won’t be trifling. It isn’t easy to find work in the nonprofit world of art and museums, and it will be Washington’s loss if the professional staff of the Corcoran is forced to look elsewhere for survival, or leave the museum world altogether.

The arrangement with GWU and the NGA pays little attention to the third of the “three c’s” that defined the Corcoran’s mission: the collection, the college and the community. The Corcoran’s greatest strength was its particularly local flavor, its connection to a local community of artists and teachers. Under the same roof, one found world-class exhibitions devoted to Modernism, or the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, but also student exhibitions and work by faculty members. Everyone in Washington is lucky that the National Gallery happens to be planted here and is free; but it isn’t a particularly local institution, with a distinct flavor that distinguishes it from other major art museums around the world.

The organizers of this cultural euthanasia stress the positives: The bulk of the art will remain in Washington; the galleries operated by the NGA at the Corcoran building will be free; the new partner institutions are both local and well situated to Corcoran; the school will continue and students will still learn and study in an environment filled with art; none of the art is being sold; and GWU has the resources to do a costly renovation of the building.

“I like to think of it as a needed reinvention,” says Peggy Loar, the interim director and president of the Corcoran. “I think this place is going to jump in a way that we haven’t had the money for over a decade to do.”

She expressed gratitude to and concern for the staff, and explained the slow breakdown of a previous arrangement with the University of Maryland as a good-faith effort to manage a complicated merger that eventually foundered on the university’s inability to make the details work. When that arrangement was announced last April, all involved stressed the Corcoran’s ongoing independence and the integrity of its collection. The National Gallery, Loar says, can’t make that same promise because it has a policy against de-accessioning art that comes into its collection: “If they take it in, they have it forever, so they have a big fiduciary responsibility to the United States taxpayer.” So the lesser pieces of the collection must be dispersed.

All of this was worked out in great secrecy, which has been the hallmark of how the Corcoran’s board does things. Like the last rescue plan, this obituary notice was announced signed, sealed and delivered. The larger Corcoran community was, as usual, disenfranchised. Except for two things: The new arrangement may be subject to legal scrutiny, to determine whether it is true to the Corcoran’s original mission; and the Corcoran is still, for now, a Washington institution, so there may be consternation among local political and civic leaders.

There isn’t much time, and given the dire economic straits of the Corcoran, there probably aren’t any better alternatives. But there is still an opportunity to extract from the National Gallery and GWU more explicit promises. Accessioning the entire collection and keeping it local is one concession they should offer; a commitment to hire the Corcoran staff is another.

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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