Cinnamon Dornsife, Washington
Former Corcoran director David C. Levy referred to the latest developments surrounding his former institutions as a “tragedy.” Ideally a thriving, independent Corcoran would have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the National Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection and the Smithsonian’s art museums as the core of a vibrant District visual arts community. For many reasons, including geography, the changing nature of the museum world and poor financial choices by the Corcoran, this did not happen. But the recent agreement with the National Gallery and George Washington University is far from tragic.
In fact, given the realities confronting the Corcoran in the past two decades, it is win-win-win. The three elements of this story facing existential threats — the collection, the fabulous Beaux-Arts building and the renowned College of Art and Design — survive, the first in the public domain, the second fastidiously renovated at GWU’s expense and the third with vastly greater resources. Parts of the collection will not be sold, as some “saviors” of the Corcoran had proposed, and the school will not be dissolved. With the imprimatur of the National Gallery, more people will see the Corcoran collection.
That doesn’t sound like a tragedy; it sounds like a creative solution.
Ford W. Bell, Washington
The writer is president of the American Alliance of Museums.
Former Corcoran director David C. Levy opined that the Corcoran board’s mistakes, which began long ago, involved failing to add to its collection while competitors snapped up available works and neglecting the importance of including patrons and others with expertise in the arts among its members. Perhaps he has a point: As design arts director at the embattled National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1990s when the Corcoran canceled a planned exhibition of controversial photography by Robert Mapplethorpe, I was not alone in regretting what seemed an uninformed, unsophisticated decision.
However, Mr. Levy neglected a glaring error in a history replete with them: The board has failed to recognize what has always made the Corcoran unique. The District is filled with world-class collections that enjoy federal support and tourist-accessible locations on the Mall. What distinguishes the Corcoran, however, is the small but mighty College of Art and Design that lives in the basement of the museum. Despite abysmal facilities and chronic underfunding, the college boasts a faculty and curriculum that offer a first-class art education to students whose work has arguably contributed more to the vitality of the Washington art scene over the years than the Corcoran’s unseen collection could.
That William Wilson Corcoran’s dream of a dynamic college and museum is coming to an end is sad, but the tail has been wagging the dog. The college will have its best chance to thrive as George Washington University dedicates resources to its future.
Mina Wright, Bethesda