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The Corcoran Gallery of Art closed its doors to the public on Oct. 1, 2014. A little more than a year later, the future of the building, its art collection, and its attendant art college—plus the fate of staffers and instructors who made the Corcoran a vibrant D.C. institution stretching back more than a century—are still being decided by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University.
The former museum still generates news, like a radioactive isotope with a long half-life. The custodians of the Corcoran’s legacy have made steady progress in figuring out what happens next with the museum’s 17,000 objects and artworks. Some anxiety remains for instructors of the former Corcoran College of Art + Design, now part of George Washington University. Still other questions linger over the Ernest Flagg–designed building—including the promise of at least two major museum shows.
Even more tantalizing may be the prospect of a show by a former Corcoran curator for the National Gallery’s East Building, which remains closed for repairs.
While the National Gallery has yet to finalize its exhibition programming at the former Corcoran building—per the cooperative framework that first brought the Corcoran into the National Gallery’s orbit, back in 2013—the museum will use the 17th Street NW space to mount a retrospective of the English sculptor Rachel Whiteread. Assembled by Molly Donovan, associate curator for modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery, in concert with The Tate in London, the exhibition will be staged at the Corcoran in 2019.
“National Gallery of Art exhibitions at the Corcoran are contingent upon the renovations of the Flagg Building being undertaken by George Washington University,” says Deborah Ziska, press chief for the National Gallery. “It is our hope that we will be able to install ‘Boundary Trouble: Outliers and American Vanguard Art’ in late 2017/early 2018 and the Rachel Whiteread exhibition in early 2019 in the second floor Flagg Building galleries.”
The National Gallery’s East Building, home to its modern and contemporary holdings, closed in 2013 to undergo extensive renovations. That’s why the National Gallery initially partnered with the Corcoran: Curators would showcase modern-art exhibits there over the duration. (The East Building will reopen in 2016.) The Corcoran’s historic Beaux-Arts building on 17th Street NW is also closed, too, for despite ongoing renovation work, although it still serves students attending the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design.
Looking to the more immediate future, the National Gallery has come closer to securing the Corcoran’s artworks. Over the last year, the National Gallery’s board of trustees, the court-annointed caretakers for the Corcoran collection, have announced two rounds of accessions (works that will enter into the National Gallery collection). Earlier this month, trustees approved the acquisition of hundreds of Corcoran artworks—1,541 in all—most of them prints, drawings, watercolors, and works on paper. (In fact, 80 percent of these were pieces by a single artist, the French caricaturist Honoré Daumier.) Taken together with the round of acquisitions announced in February—and the latest round approved on Oct. 1, which include Washington Color School paintings by Leon Berkowitz, Thomas Downing, and Howard Mehring—the National Gallery is now home to some 8,000 pieces from the Corcoran’s collection.
In early 2016, trustees at the National Gallery will make recommendations to the remaining trustees of the Corcoran—more on them in a moment—about how the thousands of artworks that don’t make it into the National Gallery should be dispersed among D.C. art institutions.
Of course, the National Gallery has absorbed more from the Corcoran than paintings and sculptures. The museum originally hired 15 staffers to one-year contracts, including the curators. One of them, Sarah Cash MacCullough, has been brought on board as an associate curator of British and American paintings. Sarah Durkee was also appointed to a permanent position as head of education publications. Philip Brookman, the Corcoran’s former chief curator, is serving a second one-year contract as consulting curator. At least six other staffers found permanent jobs or contract extensions at the National Gallery.
One former Corcoran curator who didn’t take a permanent job with the National Gallery is still involved with the museum in a significant capacity. Sarah Newman, the Corcoran’s former curator for contemporary art, is curating a show of Theaster Gates—a provocative choice for the National Gallery. Gates is a titan in the field of social-practice art, and this show will be the first time the museum touches on this cutting-edge genre. It will be only the second solo exhibition by a living African American artist in the museum’s history. The show is being planned for the East Building’s Tower Project series, which previously featured Kerry James Marshall.
“We are in the very early stages of planning a Theaster Gates show,” says Ziska, adding that no more details were available.
What happens next for former instructors of the Corcoran College of Art + Design, now under the auspices of George Washington University, is only a little clearer one year out from the Corcoran’s collapse. According to a representative at GWU, all 19 full-time faculty who sought to continue on with the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design were granted one-year extensions to their contracts as of July. The university named the Corcoran art school’s first director, Sanjit Sethi, in August.
Finally, there’s the Corcoran’s zombie leadership. The last director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Peggy Loar, has moved on from D.C.: She recently served as the interim head of the Asia Society Museum in New York, replacing Melissa Chiu, who decamped for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2014. (Note that Loar has since been replaced in that capacity.)
Still a number of former board members remain at the Corcoran. What roles they could possibly play for an institution that no longer exists is totally opaque. The Washington Post‘s Peggy McGlone recently asked the Corcoran’s chief operating officer, Lauren Stack that question—what is it exactly that you do?. She didn’t get an answer. Some questions for the Corcoran may never be resolved.
Top photo by Darrow Montgomery. Second photo “Ghost” by Rachel Whiteread, 1990.