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Dismemberment of the Corcoran: Whither the Collection? UPDATED

Corcoran Gallery of Art--College of Art + Design Photo by Lee Rosenbaum Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

UPDATE: More on this here.

I wasn’t the only one blindsided by the Corcoran Gallery and College’s announcement yesterday that (if details can be hammered out) it will essentially be divvied up by George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art, with a token “Corcoran Legacy” gallery remaining behind. It will display “a selection of works from the collection that are closely identified with the 17th Street landmark.”

Unlike previous proposals for addressing the venerable institution’s serious financial morass, this one was crafted away from the spotlight of publicity and public consultation. This precluded the acrimony and agonizing that had characterized the Corcoran’s recent deliberations. But we can now expect the institution’s stakeholders—students, staff, donors, museumgoers—to make their views heard.

If the plans are finalized, GWU will oversee the Corcoran’s college, acquiring ownership of the historic 1897 Beaux Arts building designed by Ernest Flagg, with a 1925 extension by Charles Platt. The university will also assume the hefty costs of renovating and maintaining the distinguished but down-at-the-heels facility.

Damaged skylight at the Corcoran Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Dirty skylight at the Corcoran
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The National Gallery would get an amazing windfall: whatever it wants from the Corcoran’s 17,000-object collection. It will give the rest away to other museums, prioritizing Washington, DC, institutions. All would bear a “Corcoran Collection” credit line.

While I reluctantly regard the Corcoran’s abdication of autonomy as making the best of a bad situation, the proposed arrangement seems to me less a “collaboration,” as described in the euphoric (top-linked) press release, than a capitulation. The Corcoran will cease to be a museum; its college will no longer cohabit with the museum’s deep collection of American art and European highlights, over which the National Gallery is already salivating.

The deal would give the National Gallery “one of the greatest collections of American art in the country,” exulted Deborah Ziska, that museum’s chief of press and public information, speaking with me by phone today. Its European art, she said, is also coveted: “Their Degases are stunning.” She told me that the museum’s director, Earl “Rusty” Powell, “got a standing ovation” when he announced the proposed deal to his staff.

Revealing that the National Gallery could probably keep “more than half” of the Corcoran’s collection, Ziska remarked that “we are interested in taking as much as makes sense for us.” The guiding criteria for retention will be “strength-to-strength” and “filling gaps.” “We’re weak in American sculpture,” she noted.

An iconic American sculpture not represented in National Gallery’s collection: Hiram Powers, “The Greek Slave,” modeled 1841-43, carved 1846 Corcoran Gallery of Art, gift of William Wilson Corcoran Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Iconic American sculpture not in National Gallery’s collection:
Hiram Powers, “The Greek Slave,” modeled 1841-43, carved 1846
Corcoran Gallery of Art, gift of William Wilson Corcoran
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

To everyone’s credit, none of Corcoran’s collection will be sold—not even works for which the National Gallery can’t find another home. It could theoretically be stuck with some duds that no one has use for. Perhaps works unwanted by any museum could be donated to libraries, schools, hospitals and other publicly accessible government entities or nonprofits.

This fall, the National Gallery will begin using the Corcoran’s galleries to display highlights from its contemporary art collection, much of which is temporarily off view while the NGA’s East Building is being renovated. The changing display will be named: “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art.” Admission will be free (unlike the current $10 adult admission charged by the Corcoran).

Nick Anderson of the Washington Post today described this lamentable (but probably inevitable) development as “a surprise.” Previously announced plans with the University of Maryland, which had entered into a Memorandum of Understanding for a takeover-like “partnership” with the Corcoran last April, “were suddenly shelved this week” according to Anderson’s report. We have yet to learn why.

In entrusting its future to GWU and the NGA, the Corcoran is essentially adopting a variation of Plan A—a partnership with the same players proposed in 2012 but later dropped in favor of the Maryland gambit. The current plan marks a departure from the Corcoran’s previously stated commitment to “focus only on approaches that keep the museum in the building.”

The plans for a tripartite “collaboration” are embodied in a Letter of Intent. My request to see that document was denied. (Maybe David Montgomery or Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post will have better luck.)

The deadline for finalizing the details is April 7.

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