For three desperate years, leaders of the financially struggling Corcoran Gallery of Art looked for a means of keeping the gallery and the Corcoran College of Art and Design together — a rare and historic point of distinction for the institution.

Finally, in December, with all options seemingly exhausted, the board of trustees relented. The trustees would contemplate a breakup. From that critical resolution, it took only a few short weeks to ink a deal with George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art to pick up the most important pieces of the Corcoran, which would cease to exist as Washington has known them since the gallery was founded in 1869 and the college in 1890.

“They are carrying on the legacy of the Corcoran in exactly the same way we would have wanted to carry it on, had we had the ability and the financial resources to do so,” Peggy Loar, the Corcoran’s interim director and president, said Thursday.

The notion that, for all intents and purposes, the Corcoran’s essential mission will carry on even without something called “the Corcoran” calling the shots is consolation for some who see more loss than gain in the stunning announcement Wednesday of the new arrangement.

Under an agreement that must be finalized by April 7, GWU will operate the college while keeping it in the historic Beaux Arts building near the White House. The university will acquire the building at no charge and be responsible for tens of millions of dollars in estimated renovation costs.

Detailing the Corcoran's finances.

The National Gallery will acquire a large fraction of the Corcoran’s 17,000 pieces of art, also at no charge. The rest will be distributed to other museums, with the aim of keeping all the works somewhere in Washington. The National Gallery will exhibit contemporary work and legacy pieces under the Corcoran name in the historic building.

The gallery’s collection includes paintings by Degas, Delacroix and Picasso, the famed 1770 Salon Doré (a gilded 18th-century room), a who’s who of early American painting, and world-class collections of photography and contemporary and American art.

A matter of trust

The promise that the two big partners will promote the long frustrated aspirations of the cash-strapped Corcoran is based more on good faith than a legal contract. The Corcoran will survive as a much smaller nonprofit organization dedicated to art. Its role and authority in the new arrangement have yet to be worked out.

“We were just chatting before about how much trust there is among us, across the Mall, between the university, the Corcoran and the National Gallery,” Loar said during a meeting at the gallery Thursday with Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III, director of the National Gallery, and Steven Knapp, president of GWU.

Together, they scanned the last strategic document the Corcoran prepared, in April, when leaders still hoped to keep the gallery and school united and independent. It was the first time Knapp and Powell had seen it, and Knapp noted how much of it dovetailed with the university’s and the National Gallery’s plans.

“Now the Corcoran becomes the central focus of a partnership between two very powerful institutions that can precisely preserve its legacy as an artistic and cultural force in the nation’s capital,” Knapp said. “The future is wide-open for an extraordinary adventure together.”

Dashed, of course, is the pride behind this boast in the planning document: “As the only institution in Washington, D.C., that is both a gallery and a college, we are the one institution that can bring issues to life in ways that are creative and insightful, and that promote and foster access to contemporary art, American art, and design in the context of national debate and discussion.”

Knapp, Powell and Loar maintain that the new arrangement, where gallery exhibition and education will continue under the same roof, will reach the same goal by a different route.

Failed deal with U-Md.

The Corcoran’s apparent last chance to remain united and largely independent was its attempt to forge a partnership with the University of Maryland last year. Maryland was the only institution that would contemplate taking on a financial responsibility for both the college and the gallery, Loar said. Those talks dragged past a summer deadline, and in December, Maryland outlined a proposal that would deliver funding to reduce deficits and fundraising to repair the building, according to a statement Thursday by U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh. A “cordial” meeting was held two weeks ago, Loh said.

He was awaiting a response to the proposal when he received word, shortly before Wednesday’s announcement, that the Corcoran was cutting a deal with GWU and the National Gallery.

Loar would not comment Thursday on Loh’s statement, except to say the Corcoran’s board made the right decision. The Corcoran has never been a stellar fundraiser, and the annual tally has been flat, at about $3.2 million, in recent years — the lowest level in two decades, as far as records show.

The museum world generally welcomed the agreement.

“This is an unusual model. But having watched this for the last several years, this is the best we could have hoped for,” said Ford W. Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums. “We should be so lucky to keep most of the collection here in Washington, and all of the collection in the public domain, as opposed to what could have happened. And the building is going to be restored and preserved. And it will be free admission.”

A throwback model

That hybrid museum-college model is something of a 19th-century throwback, largely gone but for a few exceptions, including dual institutions in Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. The Corcoran struggled to define a common mission for its two sides — while college tuition increasingly became the main economic engine.

“This is a warning to us all,” said Jayme McLellan, a founder of Save the Corcoran, an advocacy group that wanted the Corcoran college and museum to remain united and independent. “Through bad management, we can lose something that is very important, culturally, for our country. And this has happened at the Corcoran.”

Kirk Pillow, provost of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, who was provost and interim president of the Corcoran college when he left in early 2011, wrote in an e-mail: “The Corcoran’s museum-college model was not sustainable, given the Corcoran’s challenged resources. Compared to various dubious notions I’ve seen for how to solve the problem, this outcome makes sense, though it saddens me to see the college lose its independence.

“Decades ago GW students took their studio art instruction at the Corcoran, and GW is the right institution to inherit the teaching legacy of the Corcoran.”