Whether you consider it a civic tragedy or the preservation of a legacy, the breakup of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its College of Art & Design still haunts the city. Two years after the dismantling of what was the District’s oldest private museum, passions still run high over the causes — and more important, the result — of a court decision that forever changed the city’s cultural landscape.
In 2014, the Corcoran board of trustees petitioned the court to break its 1869 trust and allow two partners to continue its work. The National Gallery of Art was given the right to accession works from the 17,000-piece collection, and George Washington University gained control over the independent school and its two historic buildings. After giving away its priceless art and historic buildings, the trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art continue to exist as a nonprofit corporation.
In approving the plan, a judge found its promise to sustain the Corcoran legacy — even as it effectively dismantled it as an independent institution — to be less painful than what he believed was the institution’s inevitable demise.
But critics say that little of the Corcoran has been sustained. Most of the collection remains homeless, and repairs to the iconic Ernest Flagg building on 17th Street have only just begun. Just a third of the faculty who taught at the Corcoran are now employed by GWU, and student enrollment in the Corcoran program is down. Because the deal contains no timeline and little outside oversight, critics say the public can only watch its decline.
“The agreement is gravely flawed. There’s no form of public accountability,” said Linda Crocker Simmons, a retired Corcoran curator. “The city lost a major entity. It was a living organism that worked. It was not perfect, but it had its place.”
Corcoran officials said the agreement was needed to keep its world-class art collection in Washington, keep the school running and renovate the building, which, according to court documents, would require between $70 million and $100 million for repairs and alterations. The board argued that the three-way partnership offered the best outcome.
The university received almost $50 million from the Corcoran in cash, investments and property, and it is owed $7.4 million more. In May, it launched a multiyear $47.5 million renovation of the historic Flagg building. The first phase this summer is behind schedule and will not be completed by the time students return next month. Completion of all the work is not expected until the end of 2018.
Even the deal’s proponents are impatient. “The Corcoran at five years will be better than the Corcoran at two years,” said Harry Hopper III, chairman of the Corcoran board of trustees. “The wheels are turning a little slowly.”
Some members of the cultural community remain convinced that the fix was in for a deal that benefited two major institutions in the city. Students, alumni and faculty led the grass-roots opposition to the breakup; the American Alliance of Museums, the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area and the city’s attorney general supported it. Individual museum leaders were mostly silent (some say that was because they hoped to eventually gain Corcoran pieces for their own collections). The National Gallery of Art’s Board of Trustees voted in May 2014 — a month before it signed the agreement — to accession 703 works, pending the court’s approval of the deal. And the day before the court hearing, the judge disclosed that his wife was a GWU employee. He offered to recuse himself, but both sides agreed to proceed.
“It seemed as if there were things that had been agreed to, that had taken place behind the scenes before they were announced,” Simmons said. “It’s a betrayal of the public trust.”
Peggy Loar, who was interim director in 2014, said the board was faced with a difficult situation. “I know what this board went through,” she said. “It was an excruciating decision. I think they made the only call they could.”
The National Gallery of Art is the biggest winner. The museum has added 8,300 works — at no cost — to its permanent collection, including pieces by John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Frederic Remington and Ed Ruscha. The accessions have dramatically transformed its holdings of contemporary art, sculpture, American paintings and works on paper. The National Gallery’s board is expected to vote on the last group of accessions when it meets Sept. 28 and 29. The museum also received $5 million in endowment funds.
“It was certainly like opening up presents at Christmas,” modern art curator Harry Cooper said last year when the first accessions were announced.
The museum has 164 of the works on display in its galleries, including 63 pieces in the temporary exhibition, “Intersections: Photographs and Video from the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art,” running through Jan. 2. Museum officials expect that about 40 more will be on view when the East Building, home to its modern and contemporary exhibitions, reopens Sept. 30.
After GWU finishes renovating the Flagg building, the National Gallery will lease gallery space and curate exhibitions, thus returning art to the academic environment, a key piece of the Corcoran tradition. The public will be able to view the art, too, without paying admission fees. Before any art is displayed, the renovation must meet the National Gallery’s standards.
With the National Gallery’s accessioning almost complete, Hopper and the skeleton board of the Corcoran have begun soliciting proposals from local institutions interested in the remaining 9,000 pieces of art. The Smithsonian and several universities are among the organizations that have responded.
“This second wave is going to result in works being displayed in more spaces and places in D.C. than we could have executed at the legacy Corcoran,” said Hopper, who added that the board has hired a consultant to help with the distribution. Groups have been told to expect a decision in the fall.
Monitoring the progress of their partners is the chief concern of the Corcoran board of trustees, which continues to be “dedicated to art and encouraging American genius,” according to its 2015 tax filings. The latest tax return shows the organization has assets of $5 million. It no longer has any employees, and earlier this summer it awarded a grant of $175,000 to GWU for the first year of a three-year visiting professorship., according to Hopper. Artist Mel Chin is the first visiting artist-professor. His appointment was announced at the same time GWU fired 10 Corcoran faculty members.
Breaking up the art collection has been painfully slow, but it hasn’t been nearly as messy as the merger of the school. In his decision, Judge Robert Okun wrote that the university would “sustain the college under the Corcoran name . . . provide the same educational and employment opportunities to its student faculty and staff . . . renovate the iconic building” and keep its galleries open to the public.
The first promise has been kept. GWU created the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design within its Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. But the university’s five arts departments — including its own department of fine arts and art history — have yet to be integrated with it. A faculty committee is working on the transition, with a target date of next July.
The merger has caused drops in the numbers of students and staff workers. Undergraduate enrollment fell from 196 in 2013, the year before the breakup, to 151 last year, according to the university. Officials anticipate 157 undergraduates for the coming year.
About 60 faculty and staff members are employed by GWU’s Corcoran School, a university spokeswoman said. That’s a fraction of the “approximately 150 Corcoran employees” who had been offered jobs by the university, according to a letter to the court from the school’s then-provost, Steven Lerman. Of the 25 full-time professors employed at the Corcoran when the deal was approved, nine remain.
The cuts to the faculty have riled the school’s many supporters.
“It basically killed the Corcoran. They are the blood and soul of the institution,” said Sara Sklaroff, who studied graphic arts. “They had never intended to keep the Corcoran.”
Sanjit Sethi, who became director of the Corcoran School in October, said the cuts were determined by changes to the curriculum, drops in enrollment and suggestions from the accreditation team that evaluates the program. He acknowledged the difficulty of the transition, even using the phrase “remarkable collision” to describe the merging of two distinct programs.
“I have a tremendous degree of sympathy for the massive amount of change they have seen,” he said of the students. “They are right that it is no longer an independent art school. There’s no sugarcoating it.”
Muriel Hasbun, who led the Corcoran’s photography department, said that Sethi’s decision to cut three department heads revealed the gulf between the two programs.
“That tells me that whatever they are creating does not align with our ideas or what we were bringing to the table,” she said.
GWU sold Corcoran’s Fillmore School in Georgetown last year for $16.5 million. The Flagg building on 17th Street near the White House was closed in May to upgrade its mechanical, safety and electrical systems and improve bathrooms and accessibility issues. The building will reopen for the fall semester, but not all of the planned work will be done by then.
Sethi points to some positive changes. The Corcoran archives became part of GWU’s Gelman Library and are accessible by appointment after being closed to the public for almost 10 years. Chin’s hiring is another bright spot, he said.
Given the results of the agreement, many critics continue to question the original decision to break up the institution. They say that just as the Corcoran painted a rosy picture of its plan, the board exaggerated the negative consequences of other options, especially the effects of sanctions by the American Alliance of Museums if the assets transferred to GWU were used for operations. (Philanthropist Wayne Reynolds offered a plan that would have used the funds from an earlier de-accession and those from future sales in this way.)
In its petition to the court, the board pointed to the Delaware Art Museum as an example of a future it wanted to avoid. In 2014, Delaware lost its American Alliance of Museums accreditation for selling paintings to pay off debt from a 2005 expansion. Two years later, its visitors and memberships are on the rise, as is community engagement, said chief executive Samuel Sweet.
“As one of my former Corcoran colleagues said about the two case studies, ‘The Corcoran is dead. Delaware lives,’ ” Sweet said.