American University graduate student Michael Quituisaca didn’t know what to expect when he began rooting through the paintings, prints and photographs newly arrived at the university museum’s storage facility, the first of 9,000 works given to American by the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Then he stumbled upon a work by 19th-century American painter Thomas Prichard Rossiter.
“I was surprised to find it,” Quituisaca, a student of 19th-century American art, said about the 1852 oil painting, “Rebecca at the Well.” “It’s this really stylized Middle East subject. She looks very white, made for white audiences. For me, that was my painting.”
Quituisaca’s choice was both aesthetic and pragmatic. In addition to a course on curatorial practice, he was enrolled in a class on Western depiction of Eastern subjects. Rossiter’s painting linked the two. “It was a two birds, one stone scenario that worked out for me,” he explained.
Rossiter’s work is a highlight of “Moves Like Walter: New Curators Open the Corcoran Legacy Collection,” the university museum’s first show to exclusively feature art from its Corcoran Legacy Collection. A deeply personal and somewhat random selection, the exhibition is both an academic exercise for its student curators and a coming-out party for the dormant art collection.
“To work with one of the first major museum collections in the country, an institution with a name behind it — as a student, I jumped at the chance,” said Quituisaca. “When you see it in person, you get to the see the cracks, how the light hits it in different ways, you get to walk around it. It’s exactly what you want as a student.”
Named for the late curator and former Corcoran director Walter Hopps — a champion of contemporary art who was regarded as a rules-averse maverick — the student exhibition showcases 88 paintings, photographs and works on paper from 63 artists, including Rossiter, Kenneth Callahan and Robert Goodnough.
It is organized around five themes, reflective of the interests of its student-curators and a nod to Hopps’s unpredictable and extremely personal approach to exhibitions. For example, “The Selfless Spirit” examines the nature of motherhood through photographs by Joan Cassis, Arthur Tress and Alexander Lapin. A section that questions how artists represented “the other” is illustrated by the Rossiter work, along with paintings by Frederic Clay Bartlett, George Biddle and William Tolliver. A feminist look at “redefining the gaze” features photographs by Lynn Allen, Ruth Bernhard and Bernis von zur Muehlen.
Once the city’s oldest private museums, the Corcoran closed in October 2014 when the board of the financially struggling institution decided it was no longer possible to continue. Its leaders gave the renowned art school and historical Flagg Building on 17th Street to George Washington University and sent its 19,000-piece collection to the National Gallery of Art, which was given first dibs to acquire what it wanted from the collection. The National Gallery accessioned some 8,300 works, including pieces by Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Edward Hopper and Jenny Holzer, transforming its holdings of American and contemporary art and photography. The remaining 11,000 pieces were distributed last year to 22 Washington institutions, with American and George Washington universities getting the largest shares.
The distribution of the Corcoran collection represented one of the largest gifts of art in American history. This new exhibition offers a glimpse of how the second wave of gifts — those distributed in 2018, after the National Gallery acquired most of the well-known works — will continue to define the Corcoran’s place in the city’s art ecosystem.
“We are all cognizant of the legacy of the Corcoran, the school as well as the museum,” said Kym Rice, GWU’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design’s interim director. “The Corcoran is beloved in Washington and among art aficionados nationwide and internationally. We have people still coming (to the building) looking for the museum.”
The National Gallery of Art has integrated some 200 pieces into its permanent galleries, with about 30 pieces hanging in the modern and contemporary galleries of the East Building, and another 43 among its American paintings. Three Hiram Powers marble statues from the 19th century are on display together, and a silver teapot and Italian glazed ceramics are among the pieces showcased with its collection of 18th century French decorative arts.
Other Washington museums have begun displaying Corcoran gems. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery recently placed a portrait of Harvey Milk by Crawford Barton in its “The Struggle for Justice” gallery, and will devote an exhibition next year to the Corcoran gift. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has added a contemporary work by Chris Martin and Carlos Almaraz’s painting “Europe and the Jaguar.” The museum plans a Chicano print exhibition next year that will feature Corcoran pieces.
Having completed its $47.5 million, multiyear renovation of the Flagg Building, the Corcoran’s home near the White House, GWU is unveiling the first major art installation from Corcoran collection this fall. “The Paradise Institute,” a piece by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller created for the 2001 Venice Biennale, celebrates and comments on the cinema. Its plywood exterior houses two rows of real movie theater seats that look onto a miniature, old-fashioned movie house. The mixed-media film layers images and sound from the film with the audience’s reaction to it.
The installation is significant because it marks the return of artwork to the restored building, which was renowned for its galleries and exhibitions.
“It shows our roots and our connection to the old Corcoran,” Rice said.
One critical aspect of Corcoran 2.0 remains in limbo. The National Gallery of Art agreed to curate galleries in the Flagg Building, ensuring that the historical space remains a place for important art exhibitions. Although it had said the galleries would open this year, the museum now reports that no date has been set for upcoming exhibitions.
“The environments continue to be evaluated in preparation for art readiness,” said Anabeth Guthrie, a National Gallery spokeswoman. “It is premature to share our plans at this time.”
Meanwhile, the AU exhibition spotlights the breadth and depth of the Corcoran’s collecting practices and provides a peek into the future.
“We hope people will think about what a collection is. It couldn’t be just one idea because so many people were contributing,” student curator Abigail Swaringam said. “The format of our exhibition reflects how diverse the collection is. We hope people will enjoy seeing the contents of the gift for the first time.”
Moves Like Walter: New Curators Open the Corcoran Legacy Collection Through Dec. 15 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. american.edu/cas/museum.