Sad news for art lovers today:
The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington’s oldest private art museum, and its venerable college of art and design would cease to exist as an independent institution, and its key components — artwork, historic building and school program — would be taken over by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, under a plan announced Wednesday.
The news isn't all bad; the art school will continue to operate under the Corcoran name (though the degrees will be issued by GWU), and much of the collection will remain in Washington. The National Gallery will keep whatever it wants, perhaps as much as half of the collection, and donate the rest to other museums, with priority given to Washington institutions. And the building itself will get a much-needed upgrade, and will remain home to some of the works most closely associated with the museum, in a Corcoran Legacy Galley, which will be operated by the NGA.
Nevertheless, it's a shame the Corcoran Gallery as it has existed since 1869 won't still be around. It's a magnificent building, and for fans of the Hudson River School, it was arguably the best art museum in town. Unless, of course, you were on a budget; unlike the National Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum -- which also have fine Hudson River collections -- you had to pay to get into the Corcoran. So when I found myself downtown and wanting to check out some art, the Corcoran was rarely on the top of my list, unless there happened to be a temporary exhibition on display that I particularly wanted to see.
Which, of course, is one of the reasons why their financial straits were so dire. But the Phillips Collection, another private art museum in Washington that charges admission, isn't in danger of shutting down, to my knowledge at least, whereas the Corcoran has faced multiple financial crises over the last 25 years. The Phillips is smaller, though, and more focused, and has almost certainly benefited from better leadership. The directors of the Corcoran Gallery have shot themselves in the foot multiple times, most notably when the canceled an exhibition of works by Robert Maplethorpe in 1989, which resulted in a precipitous drop in membership, the withdrawal of a $1.5 million bequest, and the cancellation of at least two exhibitions due to an artists boycott. Later, they announced a huge Frank Gehry-designed addition that they ultimately had to abandon after the construction estimate more than tripled and the dot-com bust dried up the fortunes of many of the potential donors they'd been courting. Half of what little money they were able to raise for the proposed expansion went to pay Gehry's fees.
Over the years, I posted a handful works from the Corcoran in this journal. Why not join me in saying goodbye to this remarkable museum by taking a look at my very small selection of works from their collection?