While much of official Washington has left town for summer vacation, the fate of one of the country’s most cherished institutions — the Corcoran Gallery of Art — is being determined in D.C. Superior Court. After years of delinquent management and visionless leadership, the Corcoran’s board of trustees has asked the court for permission to dissolve the District’s oldest private arts museum.
The Corcoran board wants to give its Flagg Building — a national landmark across from the White House — to George Washington University, along with roughly $45 million in cash, a Georgetown property and the Corcoran name. The Corcoran’s estimated $2 billion art collection — which includes one of the best collections of 19th-century American art in the world — would be dismantled, with permission given to the National Gallery of Art to cherry-pick the Corcoran’s 17,000 art objects, with the rest of the collection to be distributed to other unspecified institutions.
The Corcoran was established in 1869 by William Wilson Corcoran — a businessman and philanthropist — whose deed established an institution “dedicated to art, and used solely for the purpose of encouraging American genius.” As one of the country’s only integrated colleges and museums, it has provided a special — even magical — place for students to study alongside curators, learn from practicing artists and showcase their art in the Corcoran’s European salon-style galleries, while providing visitors with a sweeping vision of the United States.
We cannot lose the Corcoran, as it is one of the country’s first and most vibrant independent museums with a fully integrated school dedicated to art and creativity. It is a place where anyone — rich, poor, young, old — can find inspiration and meaning in an integrated collection that tells the story of American art and America itself. The building houses some of the best gallery spaces in the world. It is a place where students — like generations before them — can pursue their dreams of becoming painters, sculptors, photojournalists and artists following their own unique path. It is a place that knows art is more than mere mastery of craft — it is about ideas, imagination, invention, creativity, the cultivation of genius itself. With deep roots in Washington, the Corcoran has always been a place where the community gathers and art is created in a proud and independent environment.
The board says that events beyond its control have made it impossible for it financially to maintain the gallery and college. But the recent trial painted a much different story. It told the story of a board that — as witnesses testified — gave up on its institution, never developed a vision, let fundraising and development collapse, hired individuals with no experience running a museum or a college for senior management positions and abandoned the Corcoran financially when the institution needed it the most. The board chairman told The Post in 2012 that he had stopped soliciting donations from major donors and that a malaise had set in. As the national arts community has recognized for years, this is mismanagement on a grand scale.
But the trial also showed a promising way forward. Financial specialists, museum professionals and experts in trust design all testified that — if the sums the Corcoran wants to hand over to GW are instead used on the Corcoran — the path to sustainability is achievable. While no one has confidence in the current board, former Ford’s Theatre chairman Wayne Reynolds has assembled a group of more than 20 philanthropists, business and civic leaders willing to step in and provide new vision and leadership. Reynolds led the effort to renovate and revive Ford’s Theatre into a thriving theater and education center devoted to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.
Under the path Reynolds has advocated, the Corcoran can again become the crown jewel of the city and a beacon of artistic and creative innovation. In addition to the traditional classes in painting, sculpture, design and photojournalism, there will be a new focus on digital media and arts, multidiscipline design thinking and technology. If William Corcoran were alive today, this would be his passion — preserving an independent college and art collection dedicated to American genius.
Camila Rondon is an undergraduate student in art studies and is president of the Corcoran Student Association. Jayme McLellan is the founder of the nonprofit Save the Corcoran, an adjunct faculty member at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and director of Civilian Art Projects.