Genuine partnership and collaboration among great institutions happen all the time. And that is happening now as the Corcoran, the National Gallery of Art and the George Washington University are putting the final touches on their new relationship.
From 1983 to 1999, I knew the Corcoran Gallery of Art from the inside and the outside — inside as its deputy director-chief curator and chief operating officer, and before that as head of the 20th-century art department at the National Gallery of Art.
At the Corcoran, we fought every day to maintain the independence and viability of the museum and school. We created a safe harbor for the distressed Washington Project for the Arts, melded dialogues between the art school and the museum, and hired curators from the National Gallery and the WPA.
Since then, I have had time to reflect on the Corcoran’s intractable structural deficits and stewardship issues. I knew the Corcoran could live, in part or as a whole, only after a radical, unfettered reformulation. The Corcoran needed to do one thing well, which it could do only if it divested itself of either the museum or the school. Otherwise, both parts of it were doomed to being never better than average. The mission and objectives of the two, gallery and college, were simply too different to coexist within one governance structure.
The Corcoran’s situation is a symptom of the larger question about redundancies in the arts and museum business. Washington is, or should be, seen as a prime example of the need for consolidation and it should lead the way. The proliferation of multiple institutions, public as well as private, divides cultural assets needlessly, splits audiences and drains resources. We have oversaturated the sustainable market by competitive ego, possessiveness and jealousies. Without careful understanding of the unique reasons for any institution to exist, confusion and mediocrity slip in.
Partnerships and consortia offer a way out. They may appear subversive to the tidy world order of static feudal museums, but we need to rethink many of our current conventions of what it means to be cultural caretakers and to operate in the broadest public trust. I know this from experience because we are following just this course at the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
Happily, the bold, new three-institution affiliation that is now being finalized avoids the end-game scenario for the Corcoran in clever ways. It offers to challenge and elevate the capabilities of all the partners and their constituencies and missions. It protects the art collection and studio education and promises to expand the multiple programs of, and for, all. It is a project based on excellence, not some last-minute accommodation.
The proud, heartfelt but often compromised history of the Corcoran is that it could not support a serious museum and an important school of art of the future, regardless of the best intentions of its many dedicated donors, students, faculty and staff. We need, gracefully, to let go of this nostalgia and look forward to astonishing new potentials with partners who together have remarkable capabilities to craft a new hybrid museum and school for the public, the students and our cultures.
It is up to the three talented players to create this visionary new model. This would help all of us in the art world learn how to build on strategic strength, unchained from the drag-weight of the past.
The writer is the founding executive director of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation in New York.
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