Corcoran and WPA End Their 11-Year Partnership

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

After 11 years of revitalization under the wing of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Washington Project for the Arts has decided to be an independent arts organization again.

The WPA/C, as the partnership has been called since 1996, announced yesterday that the organizations will separate at the end of the year. The WPA is preparing space in Dupont Circle that will house an administrative office, meeting space, an artists' resource center and an experimental "micro-gallery." The WPA will continue to host shows around the region.

"We were growing up and growing out and growing beyond what we see as providing a program for the Corcoran," said Jennifer Motruk Loy, chairman of the WPA advisory board. The group did not have permanent gallery space at the Corcoran but did have administrative offices there. "This is a way for us to develop our programs and spread out."

"There is bound to be an ongoing collaboration," said Paul Greenhalgh, the director and president of the Corcoran. Both sides agree the WPA is strong enough to go back on its own. "We had no legal obligation to be joined at the hip," he said.

Kim Ward, the WPA's executive director, said the group is able to go it alone because it has achieved a measure of financial stability. The annual budget is $500,000, and its membership is 1,000. Ward said the move will make the WPA more accessible to artists and give the group higher visibility .

The relationship between the Corcoran, the city's oldest private gallery, and WPA, a risky contemporary art promoter, grew out of a turbulent time in Washington's cultural scene. The WPA was founded in 1975 and set up as an alternative to the established, often conservative galleries. The WPA supported cutting-edge dance, music, visual arts and theater. It also operated a bookstore that showed off publications by contemporary artists. But the group kept getting evicted as developers zeroed in on the Penn Quarter neighborhood.

Then, in 1989, the Corcoran scheduled a show by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe's photos were sexually explicit and were widely attacked as pornographic. The Corcoran reacted by canceling the show and creating a firestorm nationally; many said the museum caved in to conservative forces. The WPA stepped in and showed the exhibition.

The support the WPA garnered from its action did not solve its financial problems, and by 1995 it was bankrupt. In 1996, the Corcoran board voted to supervise its operations.

With a roof, but no actual gallery, the WPA took its shows on the road. For six months the group was given 15,000 square feet of space, rent-free, in the old Staples store in Georgetown. "We had three shows there, and 21,000 people came through that space," said Ward.

A second site, the William W. Parker Gallery on New York Avenue NW, hosts the monthly exhibitions of WPA members. The group's biennial showcase of local artists is held at Pepco's Edison Place Gallery in Gallery Place. The WPA currently has shows up at the Parker and Edison locations.

"We have learned to go all over the D.C. area," Ward said, "and we wouldn't stop going all over the region."

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