an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Corcoran Collection Under Wraps: Long Wait Until “Legacy Gallery” Opens

Peggy McGlone in her Washington Post report last week, ominously suggested that there’s some sinister plot afoot regarding the collection of the defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art: The works are “being divvied up under a cloak of secrecy,” she warned.

Whither George? Gilbert Stuart, “George Washington,” c. 1803, Corcoran Collection Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

WHITHER GEORGE?
Gilbert Stuart, “George Washington,” c. 1803, Corcoran Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But it’s unreasonable to expect the National Gallery of Art, the new custodian of the Corcoran’s collection (as approved by the DC Superior Court), to publicize its every step in executing the complicated assignment of determining the fate of this eclectic 17,000-object trove—a dispersal that (as I argued in the Wall Street Journal) should never have been allowed to happen.

That said, I would have expected the NGA to exhibit expeditiously some highlights from a collection that was so beloved by the 145-year-old Corcoran’s heartbroken constituency. Instead, as Deborah Ziska, the NGA’s chief of press and public information, informed me last week, just two works from the Corcoran are currently on display. They’re making a guest appearance in a temporary exhibition devoted to Degas‘s Little Dancer (to Feb. 8).

“At this point in time,” Ziska told me, “I am not at liberty to provide information about those or any works, in terms of what will be accessioned or when any of those will go on view.”

Here are the two splendid Corcoran Degases now on display at the NGA:

Edgar Degas, "The Dance Class," c. 1873 Trustees of the Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection)

Edgar Degas,
“The Dance Class,” c. 1873
Trustees of the Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection)

Edgar Degas, "The Ballet," pastel, c. 1880 Trustees of the Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection)

Edgar Degas, “The Ballet,” pastel, c. 1880
Trustees of the Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection)

Ziska had previously told me that the NGA would probably keep “more than half” of the Corcoran’s collection—a windfall that would give it “one of the greatest collections of American art in the country,” as well as important European art. “Their Degases are stunning,” she then noted.

“We are interested in taking as much as makes sense for us,” she added, noting that the guiding criteria would be “strength-to-strength” and “filling gaps….We’re weak in American sculpture.”

As allowed by last August’s misguided court decision, the NGA can take whatever it wants from the Corcoran’s trove and parcel out the rest to other museums and public institutions, prioritizing Washington entities. All works will bear a “Corcoran Collection” credit line.

Last week, Ziska indicated that it will be a long time before the NGA displays any art in the Corcoran’s former building, including the core Corcoran works that will be retained for a “Legacy Gallery” there. George Washington University will have to complete “necessary renovations,” after which “we will need about a year before we can show any exhibitions.”

GWU, in accordance with the court decision, has assumed responsibility for the College of Art + Design’s (now: “Corcoran School of the Arts and Design’s”) students and curriculum. It will operate the Corcoran building as a facility for its Columbian College of Arts and Science.

Ziska told me that the NGA plans “no major redesign” for its galleries at the Corcoran. She added:

The director of the NGA, Earl Powell III, has called the second-floor gallery spaces of the historic Flagg Building [the 1897 Beaux Arts structure by Ernest Flagg]—where the National Gallery will be presenting exhibitions of contemporary and modern art, as well works for the Legacy Gallery—“some of the most beautiful galleries in the country.”

Capital improvements for the exhibition spaces will be confined to “updating and refurbishing what is already there: floors, lighting, walls, skylight cleaning, etc.,” she said.

Damaged skylight at the Corcoran Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Damaged, dirty skylight at the Corcoran
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Candace Smith, assistant vice president for media relations at GWU, told me last week that there was “no specific timeframe yet” for completion of renovations to the building.

Smith added:

Since the university took ownership of the building in late August, we have been assessing repairs, making urgent repairs and are in the early stages of academic space planning. Keep in mind in some parts of the building, what was previously gallery space will be academic space.

Classes have been continuing in the building since GW took ownership of the college in late August. We hosted National Portfolio Day in November, and are planning on showcasing students’ work in the spring with the NEXT exhibit in the 17th Street building.

A photo from the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design’s website shows the use to which the Corcoran’s grand staircase has been put.

BEFORE:

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

Hiram Powers, “The Greek Slave,” modeled 1841-43, carved 1846
Corcoran Gallery of Art, gift of William Wilson Corcoran
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

AFTER:

CorcGWStud

Strangely, the interim director of the GW-assimilated Corcoran School of the Arts and Design is Alan Wade, a professor of theater who is also an actor and director.

Couldn’t they find a visual arts professional for this assignment?

an ArtsJournal blog