Jayme McLellan was adamant. A conference on the arts and social justice could not use the empty galleries of the former Corcoran Gallery of Art without addressing the injustice that led to the institution’s demise.
So with the support of the leaders of the Creative Time Summit, she organized a panel discussion, “Case Study: Losing the Corcoran Gallery of Art,” to examine what led to the dismantling of the museum and to identify ways to repair the fragmented arts community it left in its wake.
“Let’s talk about rebuilding, together,” McLellan told the small audience.
The bare walls of the gallery — where priceless American paintings were long displayed — reflected the mournful tone of the discussion about the museum and school. In 2014, a District judge approved a deal that gave the National Gallery of Art custody of the museum’s 17,000-piece collection and George Washington University control of its renowned art school.
In the two years since the landmark agreement, the National Gallery of Art has formerly acquired some 8,300 works. GWU received almost $50 million in cash and property, as well as the historic Flagg building on 17th Street, where Sunday’s conference events were held. The university has merged the Corcoran program into its College of Arts and Sciences, cutting about half of the full-time faculty. It has also launched a multiyear renovation of the iconic building.
The morning discussion was one of many local conversations that were part of Creative Time’s three-day conference. Hundreds of artists and activists gathered at the Lincoln Theatre Friday and Saturday and at GWU’s Corcoran space Sunday to examine “the state of democracy in advance of the 2016 election,” according to organizers. Creative Time is a New York nonprofit focused on the intersection between creativity and social change. Performances, lectures, field trips and conversations focused on race, equality, immigration and social justice, among other themes.
The story of the Corcoran was framed in cautionary terms, with McLellan, a former Corcoran adjunct, and alumni Camila Rondon, Johab Silva and Joseph Orzal offering ideas about how to engage the local arts community to maintain the Corcoran’s spirit and legacy. The group described the problems that led to its breakup, but they were just as concerned with its fragile future.
Describing the tightknit community of teaching artists and alumni as the “Corcoran diaspora,” McLellan said the group must find new ways to continue its work. “It’s important to remember the history, celebrate the history and not let things be erased,” she said. “It’s important to keep telling this story.”
“We have to remember what happened,” added Silva, who is working on a master’s degree after completing his undergraduate degree in May. “I still feel the pain of it. It’s really hard.”