Whether it achieved its goal of preserving the legacy of the Corcoran Gallery is debatable, but the landmark agreement that broke apart Washington’s oldest private museum has been an absolute bonanza for the National Gallery of Art.
After its board of trustees approves the next round of acquisitions on Oct. 1, the National Gallery of Art will have accessioned about 40 percent of the Corcoran’s collection, including priceless pieces by Edgar Degas, Frederic Edwin Church, John Singer Sargent and Carrie Mae Weems.
Curators are expected to bring a roster of nearly 1,000 works to the board to be accessioned next week, National Gallery Director Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III said. In January, an initial 6,430 pieces from the Corcoran’s 17,000-piece collection were added to the National Gallery’s permanent collection.
In addition, the museum also received $5.2 million in endowment funds from the Corcoran, a previously undisclosed gift made last year. The endowment funds were transferred by the Corcoran board, and their use is restricted to four areas: research and publications, collections maintenance, exhibitions and art acquisition.
The National Gallery took custody of the Corcoran’s holdings last fall, after a judge approved the deal that also gave George Washington University control of the Corcoran’s College of Art and Design. The National Gallery has the right of first refusal of the art, with the understanding that the works it doesn’t acquire will be distributed to museums and universities in the District.
A year after that ruling, only 51 works — including Hiram Powers’s sculpture “The Greek Slave” and Frederic Edwin Church’s painting “Niagara” — can be viewed by the public.
“We’ll probably accelerate the infiltration of the Corcoran works, and the number will increase,” Powell said. “I don’t know if you’ve been in the galleries recently, but it looks pretty fabulous. But it’s a work in progress, and it’s going to stay a work in progress for a time.”
“When we open the East Building galleries a little later than a year from now, there are certainly going to be a number of major works that will be part of that presentation,” he said. “But I don’t want to guess a number.” The East Building has been closed since 2014 and is on track to reopen at the end of 2016 with 12,000 square feet of new gallery space.
Some 5,000 photographs and works on paper acquired from the Corcoran are also available for viewing by appointment in the National Gallery’s study rooms, Powell said.
But many are impatient. The Corcoran’s 17th Street building is home to GW classes and students, but its public galleries remain shuttered as much-needed renovation work continues. It will be another year or more before those promised “Legacy” galleries open, Powell said.
“What has surprised me is how long it has taken to get an exhibitions program going. It would be in the best interest of all responsible parties to re-create the Corcoran as a hub of artistic activity in Washington,” said Jayme McLellan, co-founder of Save the Corcoran.
Meanwhile, the Corcoran, even without its museum or school, continues to exist. Its board of trustees meets quarterly and is planning for future programs, according to its chief operating officer.
“The trustees are . . . considering several options that address art, art education and D.C. students,” Lauren Stack, the Corcoran’s chief operating officer, said in an e-mail. Stack declined to elaborate on what those options entail or what she does as chief operating officer of a museum with no building, staff or collection. She also declined to say how much she earns in her revised role. Stack was paid $193,063 for the year that ended June 30, 2014, according to tax filings.
Many of those who fought to block the deal are critical of its board’s planned resurgence.
“The trustees of the Corcoran demonstrated that they weren’t capable of managing or preserving the Corcoran,” said former Corcoran employee Bobbie Faul-Zeitler, “so it is hard to understand how they will be capable of managing any future role.”
As the National Gallery nears the end of its review (although officials say a few more items may be brought into the collection by year’s end), the focus turns to finding homes for the remaining 10,000 works. Powell described it as matchmaking, with National Gallery curators working to place the works in the most appropriate places.
“We have letters of interest from just about everyone,” Powell said, listing the names of several Smithsonian art museum directors, as well as those who work for local universities and private institutions. “We will be responsive to that.”
But artists and individuals who are interested in the collection are left on the sidelines.
“There are so many things about it that are such a disappointment,” said Cynthia Connolly, a photographer who has work in the collection. “It’s very vague, and nobody is talking about anything. I’m stuck in this limbo zone.”
She is not alone. Even after a year, many carry the emotional scars from the loss of their beloved institution.
“The loss of the Corcoran Gallery and the College of Art and Design is still a cultural blow that resonates to this day,” said Brigitte Reyes, an independent curator. “How does one disappear a museum and art school close to 150 years old that affected so many people and had such a rich history? People still ask me how did it happen and why was it allowed to happen. I still find it hard to explain.”