Don't let the name confuse you. The Corcoran Gallery of Art may sound like a commercial gallery, but it's every inch a museum, complete with its own college of art. The only things for sale here are the gifts in the museum shop and culinary delights from on-site cafe Todd Gray's Muse.
Built in 1897 from a design by Ernest Flagg, the massive yet elegant building of neo-Grecian architecture is actually the second home of William Wilson Corcoran's art collection. In 1869, His fabulous trove of 19th-century American painting and sculpture was originally housed in what is now the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. But as his collection grew, the banker and philanthropist found he needed bigger closets and more wall space.
Today, the collection continues to grow, including not only works by such American masters as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole and Rembrandt Peale, but numerous Dutch, Flemish, French and other European paintings as well. In 1925, the Corcoran inherited from U.S. Senator William A. Clark the Salon Dore, an entire 18th-century room from the Parisian Hotel de Clermont, with its splendidly gilded ornamentation. In recent years, the Gordon Parks Collection of Photographs, the Evans-Tibbs Collection of African American Art and the Edelson Collection of European Avant-Garde Photography round out the registry.
As the Corcoran moves into the 21st century, the institution has grown further and further outward from its core aesthetic. The Corcoran may have a lot of very old canvases, but it's also not afraid of interactive computer art, of performance, of video and the expanding horizon of the camera.
Insider tips: You can buy tickets up to six weeks in advance (with a $2.75 convenience charge) by calling 800-745-3000 or online via Ticketmaster. Once you’re there, drop by the gallery’s atrium for tours Wednesday-Sunday at noon, Thursday at 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. Sign up for a 90-minute family workshop the third Saturday of the month. There are only 15 spots per class, so booking two weeks in advance is encouraged.
-- Michael O'Sullivan (Updated Feb. 23, 2012)