Although the saga of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design drew to a close this year, Corcoranologists may never stop debating the reasons why. A federal judge ruled in August that trustees at the Corcoran had no other option but to close the museum, hand the art over to the National Gallery of Art, and entrust the historic building and college to George Washington University. “Entrust” may be the wrong word: The business-minded board had pursued the giveaway in bad faith, according to the (ultimately unfruitful) challenge brought forward by former Corcoran instructor and art dealer Jayme McLellan. Now, four months after the final verdict, the only thing that’s settled about the museum is the rebranding: After a partial renovation, the NGA Corcoran is scheduled to open in late 2015.
The Corcoran survived so many crises for so long that it seemed almost invulnerable, or at least unlikely to ever totally succumb to its wounds. Over the years, the museum’s leaders have never given a full accounting of these problems. One administration after another has cited a lack of foot traffic from its off–National Mall location, for example, as if being the White House’s neighbor could be considered a liability. (The one time it was: after 9/11, when pedestrian pathways to the Corcoran really did close.) The real problems are too numerous to name: the notorious Robert Mapplethorpe censorship episode of 1989; the all-too-ambitious wing dreamed up by Frank Gehry in 1999; the epic brain drain and mass firings in 2006; the colossal fundraising collapse that followed. How, in the end, could something so humdrum as a consultant takeover of the board and directorship humble a museum that survived Sen. Jesse Helms?
For the time being, Corcoran and NGA curators are preparing the art from the Corcoran collection to be divided up and carried off. Standing in line for works from the estate are the National Gallery; various art museums under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution; other area museums, including the Phillips Collection, the Kreeger Museum, the Katzen Arts Center, and perhaps Baltimore museums; and outside institutions from far and wide. (Museums will claim artworks in that order, according to sources familiar with the proceedings.) It’s a grim affair, with no guarantee that all the good work will stay in the area, though the very best may end up in the so-called Corcoran Legacy Gallery that the NGA will maintain in the Corc’s original Beaux-Arts Flagg Building.
Just as important for the future of art in D.C. is the fate of the school, now the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design under George Washington’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. Tuition will be fixed at the old (and significantly lower) Corcoran levels for the remainder of the academic year. GW has given no assurances that these rates will remain modest for good; in fact, before the handoff was made official, the Corcoran raised its tuition by 3 percent for undergraduates (4 percent for graduate students). If Corcoran tuition rises to GW levels, it will be the most expensive art school in the nation—which can’t be good news for the significant number of Corcoran graduates who wind up defaulting on their student loans (about 5 percent). Perhaps with GW’s superior counseling services and core programs, these students will be better off.
Or perhaps the Corcoran will be rendered unrecognizable, and the creative wellspring that has fed this city’s art scene for decades will finally run dry. Hence a new chapter in the Corcoran’s story opens. Since 1890, the college has served as the city’s only professional art school. What happens next—what’s happening right now—will cement the Corcoran’s legacy for the next century.