AN AIR of desperation surrounded the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s efforts in recent years to be viable. It unloaded real estate, auctioned off Oriental carpets and even thought about relocating from its historic home. Meanwhile debts mounted and the endowment shrank.

It’s hard then to find fault with a plan that will allow the Corcoran’s small but exquisite art collection to be enjoyed by a wider audience, preserve its Beaux-Arts building as an art destination near the White House and continue its valuable work of art education. The proposed takeover of the Corcoran by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University should be celebrated as a sensible, practical way to retain what is best about this venerable Washington institution.

Under the proposed agreement, which was announced last week, the Corcoran’s collection would be ceded to the National Gallery while GWU would operate Corcoran College of Art and Design and assume ownership, including responsibility for long-needed repairs, of the landmark building on 17th Street.

The boards of the three institutions must still approve the proposal. Wistful nostalgia for the independence of the Corcoran shouldn’t get in the way of what makes sense.

Yes, one can regret the breakup of the Corcoran’s $2 billion collection, but it’s hard to think of a better steward than the National Gallery, which would decide what to acquire and what to donate to museums around the country. The best-known works probably would stay in Washington, with exhibitions at both the National Gallery and the Corcoran building. Art deemed not compatible with the gallery or the Corcoran Legacy collection would go to other museums, with those in the District getting priority.

“This arrangement turns two great collections into one extraordinary collection,” said Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery. An added boon for the public is that the federally funded National Gallery, unlike the private Corcoran, doesn’t charge admission. Even as The Post’s Philip Kennicott mourned the end of a freestanding Corcoran, he wrote, “The vast majority of people who visit Washington will never know the difference, and arguably will be better served by the new post-Corcoran arrangement.”

Details need to be worked out, particularly regarding the merger of the college with GWU, and people undoubtedly will continue to study what doomed the Corcoran — poor management, the impossibility of competing with free offerings down the street or some combination. On balance, though, Washingtonians should feel pleased that a way has been found to carry on its mission.