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Corcoran Confusion: Bungled Rollout of Its “Wonderful News”

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Rarely have far-reaching, potentially disruptive changes to a venerable cultural organization been presented to its stakeholders as misleadingly and confusingly as the proposed alliance among the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art and Design, the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University. The bumbled attempt to explain this tentative arrangement is riddled with evasions (partly because details are still being worked out) and has raised more questions than it has answered.

The end of the Corcoran as its devotees have known it may have been unavoidable, given its chronic inability to attract sufficient funds, infrastructure problems and spotty leadership. But this lamentable coda to its 145-year run could hardly be regarded as “wonderful news” by that institution’s stakeholders.

Astonishingly, that’s exactly how it was described at the beginning of last week’s “Dear Corcoran Community” e-mail by Peggy Loar, interim director and president of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art and Design:

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The Corcoran’s “proposed collaboration” with the two large, well-heeled Washington powerhouses would cause its resources to be divided up and repurposed by the new partners.

As I noted in my initial post about this plan, the Corcoran’s abdication of autonomy is not so much “collaboration” as capitulation—a development to which some in the “Corcoran Community” will reluctantly resign themselves, but will hardly embrace as “wonderful.”

The tone-deafness of Loar’s first euphoric sentence was matched by the inscrutibility of a later one, appearing in both in her e-mail and in the online press release announcing the changes:

For works not accessioned by the National Gallery, the Corcoran, in consultation with the National Gallery, will develop a distribution policy and program [emphasis added].

Given the Corcoran’s sorry track record of auctioning its masterpieces, many of us strongly suspected that “distribution” was a euphemism for “deaccession.” A conversation with Deborah Ziska, that National Gallery’s chief of press and public information, set me straight and saved me from disseminating that misconception in print. Not stating unambiguously in the press release that no works would be sold was the rollout’s biggest bungle. (This was corrected in an updated release, issued two days later.)

A subsequently issued seven-page list of Frequently Asked Questions made the no-sale provision explicit and gave new details about the rocky relationship with the University of Maryland, whose proposal for an alliance was recently rejected. But still unexplained were the actual reasons why the two sides were “far apart on key issues.”

The FAQs also talk about repurposing the Corcoran’s original Flagg building as the “Corcoran Contemporary: National Gallery of Art.” But not a word is said about the Platt addition, which houses the Clark Collection of European art, additional exhibition galleries and the Salon Doré (pictured in this post from my visit there), which was donated to the Corcoran by its major patron, the U.S. Senator William Clark.

Many suspect that the Platt spaces will be largely remodeled to serve the educational functions of George Washington University. My queries to the Corcoran and GWU about this, as well as my questions to the Corcoran about the reasons for its rejection of the UMD proposal and about the fate of the Corcoran’s archives were met by responses that “we simply do not have these answers right now” (Corcoran) and “we expect some of the current gallery space will be used for academic activities but specific plans for the building have not yet been decided” (GWU).

Perhaps the biggest, most sensitive unanswered question is absent from the FAQs and has not been analyzed in any of the news commentary that I’ve seen.

More on that, coming soon.

For now, here’s recent additional coverage by Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post and Kriston Capps in the Washington City Paper. And here’s the Post’s celebratory editorial extolling the controversial proposed arrangement as one that “it’s hard…to find fault with.”

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

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