The fate of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design appears to be a fait accompli. At least, that’s the way that leaders at the Corcoran have framed the decision that would hand over the art collection and some museum space to the National Gallery of Art and the college and building to George Washington University.
Yet the self-imposed April 7 deadline for the boards of all three institutions to vote on this scheme has come and gone, with no fait accomplished. For the worried supporters of the Corcoran—a group that includes students past and present, faculty, and staff, not to mention Washington museumgoers—this delay is as good news as any.
Yet a delay is not the news that Washington deserves. For staff, faculty, and students in particular, a deal penned behind closed doors that hollows the qualities that make the Corcoran special will be worse than a disservice—it may well be a tragedy. The board has deemed it necessary, even crucial, to pursue this course in absolute secrecy, as if it were beholden to shareholders, not alumni and art lovers. Although Washingtonians know almost nothing about the details of the agreement, the framework put forward so far is one that betrays the long legacy of the Corcoran, which can do better (and has survived worse).
Too many times in the past two years has the Corcoran announced a solution to its ongoing problems, only for leaders to retreat—before announcing they’ve found another way out. This is the second time that the Corcoran has offered that it was in talks with George Washington and the National Gallery, and also the second time that leadership went dark on the proceedings (after bragging about them). Between the first time the Corcoran announced these three-way talks, in October 2012, and the current negotiations, the institution has heard from two suitors who promised a way out for the Corcoran in exchange for input on its future—and then spurned both.
Under the current proposal, the Corcoran Gallery of Art would hand over its storied, quasi-encyclopedic art collection to the National Gallery of Art. The museum would absorb the best artworks and help divvy up the rest among other institutions in D.C. and beyond. Under the name “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art,” the National Gallery would show modern and contemporary works at the Corcoran—meaning, in all likelihood, much more conservative shows than what Corcoran viewers are used to. Meanwhile, George Washington University would entirely absorb the Corcoran College of Art + Design, giving the scrappy art college an institutional framework that it has never once indicated it needs.
In exchange, the Corcoran will be merely and ultimately dissolved. Some semblance of the Corcoran may persist as a nonprofit, one whose role has been described in press materials as advisory. Needless to say, that’s an unsatisfying outcome for anyone who has cared at all for the Corcoran. Many Washingtonians love it—reason enough for the boards of all three institutions to pay better than lip service to the concerns of their constituencies.
Since the Corcoran announced the deal in February, I’ve had a lot of questions—for the Corcoran, for the National Gallery and George Washington, for my sources, for the city. In my reporting, I’ve come up with plenty of answers but hit just as many dead ends and smoke screens. The questions the Corcoran faces—from tuition stabilization to the physical condition of the Flagg Building to the fate of the art—should be answered, divulged, and discussed publicly before trustees from all three organizations vote on a framework for the takeover. Here are some of the questions (and answers) that these bodies need to address now, before it’s too late.
There’s no single answer, but in short: The Corcoran’s leadership does not believe the museum has the means to right its finances and undertake a renovation.