Few funerals elicit memories of confronting Robert Mapplethorpe for smoking a joint indoors, watching Andy Warhol use lipstick for his book “signing,” and taking Barbara Bush on a private art tour. But Saturday’s requiem for the Corcoran Gallery of Art was no ordinary funeral. And though there was no body, there was surely once a soul.
Bidding a fond farewell to the Corcoran on its penultimate day of existence as an independent institution, a group of about 50 mourners gathered in front of the museum. They toured its galleries, reading and listening to the names of people who worked, studied, and exhibited there, and laid a wreath in front of the Corcoran family mausoleum, sharing stories and memories along the way. “We are all art widows now,” declared Linda Crocker Simmons, a 26-year curator at the Corcoran and the main organizer of this weekend’s proceedings.
As of today, the Corcoran is no more. Last month, the D.C. Superior Court approved the dissolution of the Corcoran as an independent entity. The college will be absorbed into George Washington University and the museum taken over by the National Gallery of Art. The 17,000 pieces in the Corcoran’s permanent collection will be dispersed, with the NGA getting first pick and the rest offered to other local and, as a last resort, non-local institutions. A painstakingly collected history of American art will scatter to museums far and wide.
Best known for its extensive collection of American art, the Corcoran also had a well-earned reputation for supporting local and emerging contemporary artists, helping launch many careers. “You could walk through American history by walking through that museum,” says Carolyn Campbell, who worked at the Corcoran as its first public relations representative in the 1970s and early ‘80s and traveled to D.C. from Los Angeles to help Crocker Simmons organize the memorial service.
Although the whole concept of a funeral for a museum may sound like a performance-art piece or a pretentious publicity stunt, it didn’t feel like either. It was surprising how much the event felt like a funeral for a real person. Looking past the elaborate Victorian-period clothing, black veils, and mourning coats, attendees seemed sincerely distraught and saddened by the loss. An obituary appeared in the Washington Post, any tears shed were genuine, and the memories shared were happy ones. Although the obituary mentioned the Corcoran’s “self-induced malaise of financial management, artistic timidity, and self-censorship,” at the funeral—-just like one for a real human being—-no one dwelled on the protracted suffering of the deceased, focusing instead on healthier times. “They’re all sweet memories for me,” mused Campbell, who also took art classes there as a child.
The crowd was packed with former museum staffers from the Corcoran’s heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s, but there were also artists, alumni, and even a group of Corcoran College of Art + Design first-years in attendance. Although the memorial was open to the general public, it appears that only the Corcoran’s closest associates showed up, some trekking long distances to get there. An art dealer flew in from New Orleans to say goodbye to one of his favorite museums. A former Corcoran registrar made her way from Atlanta. Travelling from Connecticut to pay her last respects, Judith Schomer, a volunteer and docent at the Corcoran in the 1970s and ‘80s, spoke of her “tremendous loyalty to the Corcoran” and how it pained her to see it go.
After leading everyone through the Corcoran galleries one last time, organizers placed the memorial wreath in a hearse and attendees followed it in a procession to Oak Hill Cemetery. The group of mourners (which had now dwindled to about 25), followed a lone bagpiper to museum benefactor William Wilson Corcoran’s gravesite, where the wreath found its final resting place. “We place this wreath to inform Mr. Corcoran that one of his benefactions is no more,” said Crocker Simmons, holding back tears.
Crocker Simmons and Campbell noted that the main impetus for the event was to pay tribute and say farewell. After a whirlwind of legal activity, they felt that the memorial service would give everyone a sense of closure. Yet as somber as it was, the event also served as a kind of reunion for former colleagues, giving them all a chance to reminisce and share anecdotes from the good old days. “Like they say: weddings and funerals,” remarked Campbell.
Photos by Elena Goukassian
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this post stated that Campbell contacted staff at the National Gallery and GW to invite them to the funeral. In reality, she contacted them to coordinate with their security teams.