Few marriages have the potential to be as uneasy as that between an art museum and an art school. These relationships are beset with such existential questions as “To create — or to curate?” The partners are always mutually suspicious that the other is not contributing a fair share to household finances.

Behind the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s controversial decision Monday to consider moving out of its historic building at 17th Street NW, and maybe out of Washington altogether, is a bold gambit to thrive in a national cultural landscape where it has been much more common for museums and art schools to fall out of love and go their separate ways, say art educators and gallery officials.

Not all are convinced that pulling up stakes is the right move to stabilize the deficit-plagued gallery and affiliated Corcoran College of Art and Design, which share the same budget and board of directors but have somewhat different reasons for being.

“I just hope that this won’t impact the appeal of a Corcoran education,” said Kirk Pillow, a former provost at the Corcoran, who left in 2010 to become provost at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. “We saw regularly that for students who would want to study at the Corcoran, a significant part of the appeal was studying in that building and having the opportunity to show their work through exhibits in that building.”

Bill Barrett, the Corcoran school’s dean in the early and mid-1980s, said he thought future generations of students wouldn’t care, as long as they remain closely tied to an excellent gallery collection.

“I think the Corcoran is genuinely looking for a way to do something really unique with these two arms of the institution, rather than let them drift apart,” said Barrett, who is executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design in San Francisco. “If they can do that, it would just be fabulous. It would be new and unique. And it may show others how to really use the assets of a collecting institution like a museum and the assets of a teaching institution.”

He added: “I think the big question, quite candidly, is, ‘Who’s going to want to buy that building?’ ”

The model of art schools attached to art museums emerged from 19th-century notions of how to teach art: Students learn by copying the works of masters. The only place to find masterworks was in museums. After World War II, as education became more regularized, with accreditation requirements, it got to be too much for many museums. They cut their schools or maintained little more than amateur art classes. By 1960, there were perhaps a dozen significant museum schools, from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine, Barrett said.

Now there are four: the Corcoran; the Art Institute of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; and, in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts museum and school. (Some would also list the Rhode Island School of Design, although the school dominates its Museum of Art, Barrett said.)

What drove most museum schools apart were the inherent tensions between the missions of museums and art schools.

“It is true that both parts of the organization are, at their core, about education, but it’s slightly different education,” Barrett said. “You’re educating the public about things that have already been made, and you’re educating students to make things that have yet to be made.”

Such tensions have always been present within the Corcoran — although a formal split was never seriously considered in public over the years. Corcoran officials now say they have little choice but to double down on the institution’s hybrid identity. That this museum-school couple stayed together has made it distinct.

“What we decided to do is we sat down and said, ‘Okay, in the art world, where is there white space — where is there space that if we created a unique institution we would be competitive both in the art education world and in the museum world?’ ” said Fred Bollerer, president and director of the Corcoran.

A larger, less expensive and more flexible home could allow the institution to refocus itself more explicitly as an educational institution, with the collection of 16,000 paintings, drawings and photographs put more directly in the service of educating students and the public, while also supporting the gallery, Bollerer said.

Remaining in the Beaux-Arts landmark built in 1897 would cost an estimated $100 million to bring it up to modern museum standards, plus up to $30 million in engineering and architectural “soft costs,” he said.

Corcoran officials attributed the rehab cost estimates to consultants but did not respond to a request to explain the estimates in detail.

“I think the idea of uniting the education mission and the museum display mission has the potential to make the Corcoran distinctive, especially in that location and that market,” said Pillow, whose university includes the successor of a college that split from an art museum years ago. “The Corcoran is the only museum anywhere in the region that has an education mission far beyond most museum education departments.”

The problems the institution faces are complex and long-standing. While strong public and private museum competitors sprang up around Washington’s oldest private art museum, founded in 1869, the Corcoran failed to find a viable niche. Fundraising waxed and waned unpredictably; missteps such as canceling an exhibit by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989 and being unable to fund a $200 million Frank Gehry-designed expansion in 2005 were neither forgotten nor forgiven by some arts patrons.

Last calendar year, gallery attendance hit a seven-year nadir of 85,441 visitors, and in the fiscal year ending last June, the Corcoran ran a deficit of $7.2 million on a budget of $31 million.

The college has been a bright spot. While undergraduate enrollment has declined from 388 students in 2005 to 287 last year — in line with national trends at other art schools — graduate enrollment jumped — from 68 students in 2005 to 265 in 2011. The college was operationally more lucrative than the gallery, with revenue of about $18 million last year, compared with $904,352 for the gallery (both figures are exclusive of charitable contributions made to the institution as a whole). Yearly undergraduate tuition is about $31,000; yearly graduate tuition ranges from $22,000 to $29,000 depending on the program.

But the college has been without enough space at least since the 1980s, when efforts were undertaken to find satellite campuses. Now, classes are taught in the historic building and at the Georgetown campus in the former Fillmore school.

Even so, the graduate program cannot offer Master of Fine Arts degrees — only Master of Arts degrees — because there is not enough studio space. Bollerer said that one day, he would like the school to offer PhD programs and academic fellowships.

Bollerer said the gallery and school have endeavored to work more closely for the past few years. For example, visiting artists whose work is part of exhibits meet with students. Bollerer envisions future collaborations in which gallery curators might work with professors and students to mount traveling exhibitions of rarely seen examples from the collection that could tour underserved art markets across the country.

People associated with the school say an important change of attitude has taken place on the Corcoran board of trustees and in Corcoran leadership. In the past, trustees and officers were more apt to think of themselves as stewards of a gallery with a school attached, these people say. The gallery had cachet and social juice, while the school was — in the nature of art schools — gritty and anti-establishment. Now, the school’s value is more appreciated.

“I think, really, the power on the board was among the museum supporters,” Barrett said of past years.

Tuesday evening at a gallery in Logan Circle, current and former Corcoran students mulled over the potentially dramatic doings at their school while celebrating the opening of Debitum Naturae, an exhibit by the Boys Be Good queer art collective.

Jason Edward Tucker, 21, a senior in fine art photography, said he is pleased the museum-school model would be enhanced, but he’s reluctant to move out of the old building.

“If they move to a modern building, it’s not going to have that same feel of the Corcoran. That’s sort of crucial,” he said.

Christopher Cunetto, 24, a 2010 Corcoran grad, said his memories of studying in the historic structure are precious, “but I don’t think that attachment to the facility should necessarily dictate the future of the institution. My main concern is that whatever they decide will allow them to go into the future with integrity and allow them to grow into what they can be.”

Shawn Moriarty, 24, who also graduated in 2010, said: “The current building can only hold so many people. When the family grows, it’s time to get a bigger house. The people are what makes the Corcoran, so wherever it goes, it’s going to keep its core values.

“We love the building, but we love the Corcoran more.”

Staff writer Jacqueline Trescott contributed to this report.


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