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A solution for the Corcoran: Sell the art, strengthen the school

By Mark L. Power,

Ever since it was reported in June that precarious finances could prompt the Corcoran Gallery of Art to move out of the District, there has been wide-ranging debate on the future of the institution and its landmark building. This discussion has mostly proceeded from an assumption that it is vital for the museum to survive. But is this really so? What would be the consequences of allowing the gallery to gracefully shuffle off this mortal coil?

What if the Corcoran has simply outlived its viability in a city that has numerous other important art museums, including three healthy private ones? Isn’t it possible that the Corcoran’s lack of focus, mismanagement and fundraising difficulties over many decades are indications that there is simply one too many art museums in the District?

The original Corcoran charter apparently intended the facility to be a regional museum, and the main path forward being considered by the board of trustees — moving to a D.C. suburb — would almost certainly result in a regional museum; frankly, I don’t think many tourists would put a visit to a suburban museum high on their priority lists. And does a community such Rockville or Alexandria really need the Corcoran to take up space and attract funds that would otherwise go to their own worthy arts venues?

But perhaps the most serious consequence of a such a move would be the damage done to the Corcoran College of Art and Design. Relocating would be enormously expensive, and the resulting disruption would almost certainly derail the momentum currently enjoyed by the art school, whose revenue and growth possibilities are the sole bright spots on the Corcoran’s balance sheet.

Let’s face it: The museum needs the school, but the school doesn’t need the museum. One hears a lot of pious talk about the benefits to the students of a museum-school relationship. In practice, these benefits are mostly theoretical. Some students benefit from internships within the museum, but others work at the city’s other museums. Students get free access to Corcoran exhibits, but how important is this in a city full of free museums? Many, if not most, of the major art schools in the country are not affiliated with museums — Baltimore’s Maryland Institute, California Institute of Art and Rhode Island School of Design to name three.

Almost every proposed effort to save the gallery, including the suggestion that it become a niche museum, would be to the detriment of the school — if the two institutions remain interlocked. But what if they didn’t?

An unsentimental analysis points to a more rational solution: Dissolve the museum and use the funds from the sale of the American collection to benefit the college, which in turn can be the savior of the building. Such an approach would result in a dramatically increased endowment for a school that has full run of a splendid beaux-arts building just off the Mall in which to expand. The needed $130 million refurbishment of the building could be carried out. The name Corcoran would remain on Ernest Flagg’s building, and the building would remain, as it was conceived, dedicated to art. You wouldn’t have to chisel the names of Michelangelo and Degas off the facade.

But what about the Corcoran’s American art collection? Isn’t its preservation reason enough to do everything possible to save the museum?

First, it seems apparent that the sale of some of the American collection is already on the agenda to help fund the trustees’ plans for the future. If the collection can be broken up, why not carry this process to its logical conclusion? There is no reason that the American collection has to remain at the Corcoran. All it needs is a home in the United States — and that doesn’t necessarily mean the nation’s capital.

There are certainly appropriate possible sites in Washington — the National Museum of American Art or the National Gallery — but the collection could add considerable prominence to an important museum in a smaller city. The Baltimore Museum is a fine institution, as is the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond. Other possible locations might be in the Midwest or on the West Coast. Washington and the Corcoran might feel a loss, but the nation would gain.

One sad consequence on the gallery’s departure would be that the fine professionals at the Corcoran would have to find other jobs. At very least, funds should be set aside to make their adjustment as easy as possible. Of course, the board would have to be dissolved, too, but given its track record, would that be such a bad thing?

There’s not the space here to discuss the numerous legal and fiscal roadblocks that could arise with almost any plan to dissolve the ailing 116-year-old gallery. Nevertheless, during the present rigorous examination of the institution and the building, it seems appropriate to put on the table, along with the other proposals, the possibility of retirement for the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The writer is a former photography professor at Corcoran College of Art and Design. His work has appeared at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and he has also curated two exhibits there.

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