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The Corcoran Saga: Strange, Sad

And so the deal to end the Corcoran Art Gallery as a separate entity is “closed,” as the Washington Post reported last week and as the National Gallery of Art, which later put out a press release, said. All of this still requires court approval to change the mission, but that is probably perfunctory.

CorcoranFirst a few of the basics. This “historic collaboration,” the release said,

…will maintain the historic Corcoran building as a showplace for art and a home for the Corcoran College and its programs, creating a global hub for the arts at [George Washington University]. The collaboration also will safeguard the Corcoran’s collection and increase access to it as a public resource in Washington, D.C.

…The National Gallery will maintain 15,000 square feet of exhibit space on the skylit second floor of the Corcoran building’s most historic section. That is less than half the 37,000 square feet of current exhibition space. One room will be a “Corcoran Legacy Gallery” with key works of the collection, and other rooms will feature more contemporary work, from the National Gallery and elsewhere. Instead of the current $10 charge at the door, admission will be free.

The National Gallery is likely to select more than half the Corcoran’s 17,000 artworks, “to make a logical marriage of the two collections that enhances both of them,” [Rusty] Powell [the NGA’s director] said. The rest will be given to other museums, with priority granted to local galleries.

Meantime, GW gets the Corcoran building, and

…the university also will take responsibility for preserving the famed Salon Doré, the 18th-century French period room on the first floor; the 16th-century French mantel on the first floor; and the Canova Lions out front. GWU will sell the Corcoran’s classroom building in Georgetown and use the proceeds for renovations of the main building.

However, as the Post reported, “The Corcoran Gallery of Art will contribute about $48 million of endowment funds and proceeds from a previous sale of precious rugs to help finance the new arrangement.”

What has not been said, according to people much more familiar with this than I am, is what happens to some $40 million in the Corcoran’s acquisitions fund. That’s a good question.

Another one: the announcement said that joint advisory committees with GW and also with the NGA “will consult and advise on programs and activities in the 17th Street building and will promote contemporary art and artists.” Who will be on them? One would hope NOT many of the people who ran the Corcoran into the ground.

Jayme McLellan of Save the Corcoran has other thoughts about this — hat tip to a friend who wishes to remain anonymous — which I publish part of here:

I can only hope that history, and perhaps DC superior court, pay homage to the original vision of the Corcoran – an institution that was not meant to be a tangent consumed by two behemoth institutions. It was not meant to have a portion of its collection – a time capsule of art and American history –  placed into the National Gallery of Art, with the rest scattered to other institutions.

The building was not meant to be given away to the largest holder of real estate in Foggy Bottom.

The Corcoran was meant to be an independent voice that encourages American genius. And at $48,000 a year for tuition, the artists enrolled in GW’s Corcoran had better be geniuses at earning a paycheck.

In the deepest most fundamental sense, I believe that the Corcoran was not understood by the board. They didn’t get the real value. The board that made these decisions did not look into the faces of the staff for months. They made deals in secret, sold assets not belonging to them, and hired unqualified executives to do their bidding. And a lot of people suffered, and continue to suffer in the face of this uncertainty. I guess if the moral arch of the universe is as long as they say, and it bends toward justice, maybe the true story will come out one day. It will start something like this: Harry Hopper wanted to sell the building and have a purpose built facility erected on the waterfront in Alexandria. And he never considered for a minute that the community would care as much as they did about that old building…. but they weren’t going to get in his way.

I have sympathies for this point of view — however, given the makeup of the Corcoran board and management in recent years, I don’t think it was possible to save the Corcoran as it was. A reluctant conclusion, but a realistic one. This deal, bad as it is in some respects, may be the best outcome at this point.


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