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Chris Crosman on Corcoran’s Endangered Legacy (plus: National Gallery’s Lonely Founding Fathers) UPDATED

Gilbert Stuart, “George Washington,” c. 1803, Corcoran Gallery Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Gilbert Stuart, “George Washington,” c. 1803, Corcoran Gallery
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

With Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post‘s art critic, having yesterday reemphasized his opposition to the dissolution of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its collection, let’s examine one of the arguments advanced by the Corcoran in favor of handing over its art holdings to the National Gallery of Art.

The moribund museum had claimed in its initial press release that its “great cultural…resources” would become “more widely accessible” under the terms of the proposed deal.

Two weeks ago, when I attended the Corcoran court hearings, I wandered through the National Gallery (a stone’s throw from DC Superior Court) and checked out how widely visited its American art galleries actually were. On that Monday morning, I was alone in most of the rooms, with a few exceptions such as this gallery, where an artist was painting a copy of Sargent‘s “Miss Beatrice Townsend,” 1882:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Sargent is one of a multitude of works that have come to the National Gallery from the Paul Mellon Collection. One cannot for a moment imagine that museum’s dispersing the works it was fortunate enough to receive from that munificent patron. Yet it is poised to become the opportunistic (and unintended) beneficiary of collector William Corcoran‘s legacy for the eponymous Washington institution that he founded.

When I perused the National Gallery’s American holdings, I was alone in the room with the museum’s signature Copley:

Center: Copley, Watson and Shark, 1778 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Center: Copley, Watson and Shark, 1778
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Founding Fathers, as rendered by Gilbert Stuart, were likewise lonely:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Since the National Gallery already owns two versions of Stuart’s “George Washington” (one of which is above, on the left), chances are that the Corcoran’s version (at the top of this post) may stay in its planned “Legacy Gallery” or be dispatched by the National Gallery to another museum, if Judge Robert Okun of DC Superior Court approves the proposed Corcoran deal.

The preponderance of visitors to Washington’s preeminent art museum could be found at the special exhibitions for Degas/Cassatt and Andrew Wyeth, and at this raptly received storytime:

Reading of "A Boy Named Giotto" Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Reading of “A Boy Named Giotto”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Adding his voice to those who believe the Corcoran’s collection should remain intact is Chris Crosman, founding curator of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (who left there at the end of 2011). On his watch, his now ex-museum had purchased this ex-Corcoran work:

Benjamin West, “Cupid and Psyche,” 1808 Sold by the Corcoran on Jan. 28, 2009 for for $458,500

Benjamin West, “Cupid and Psyche,” 1808, Crystal Bridges Museum
Sold by the Corcoran on Jan. 28, 2009 for for $458,500

UPDATE: Crosman added this about the West: “Crystal Bridges bought the Corcoran painting by West after it had been sold—at a London auction that was not well publicized in the U. S.—to a dealer in London.  Bringing and keeping major American works in the public domain was one of our goals.”

Here’s what Crosman wrote to me in response to my recent Wall Street Journal piece that elucidated the flaws in the Corcoran’s court case:

I grew up in DC area and recall spending many happy hours at the Corcoran—one of the reasons why I eventually decided on a museum career.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that the collection needs to come first and be kept intact under any “solution” for the museum’s financial woes. It is one of the oldest museums in the country and its collection as a whole, aside from the intrinsic value of individual works, tells a fascinating story about 19th century ideals, taste and civic values. As was argued [in my WSJ piece that quoted Darrel Sewell, former longtime American-art curator at the Philadelphia Museum], it cannot be replicated.

If the collection is dismantled, even with the National Gallery cherry-picking what it wants (and when are curators ever right about what is of lasting importance?), the Corcoran legacy and history will have been destroyed. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

In its own way, this is a more groundbreaking story than either the Barnes or Detroit [my links, not his]. If allowed to go forward, no donor will ever again trust another museum to safeguard their own legacies, let alone the notion of public trust.

Speaking of “public trust,” we await Judge Okun’s decision, which he said would be forthcoming by Aug. 20.

an ArtsJournal blog