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When Roy Slade came to the Corcoran College of Art + Design as dean in 1970, he found an institution at rock bottom. “The facilities and equipment of the school were poor if non existent,” he wrote in his recollections from the era. Some of his complaints will sound familiar to Washingtonians who love the Corcoran today, from the faulty infrastructure to the fickle funding. “A large faculty, some fine artists, were paid miserably and treated badly by the Dean,” Slade recalled. “Later, I found that the school provided income and badly needed money for the museum.”
As dean and then director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Slade left the college in better shape than he found it: accredited and recognized, an institution that stood shoulder to shoulder with the vaulted museum. Then came a censorship catastrophe in the 1980s and ’90s. An expansion debacle in the 2000s. And finally the 2010s crisis, which came to a close last week with a court decision that sealed the Corcoran’s fate.
Trustees for the Corcoran argued, successfully, that a plan to partition the college and the gallery—and to hand over the school to George Washington University and much of the collection to the National Gallery of Art—was the only workable decision left. D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Okun wrote in his judgment that the court “finds it painful to issue an order that effectively dissolves the Corcoran as an independent entity.”
If it was difficult for Okun to arrive at his decision, it’s that much harder for the Corcoran’s family to accept. Students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends have watched the Corcoran rise and fall and rise again and fall again since Slade’s day (or even earlier, in the case of some old hands).
Many critics question whether powerful institutions like the National Gallery and GW see what they see in the Corcoran—a scrappy institution with a close relationship to D.C. and a history of pressing up against official boundaries. Fortunately, the museum and the university have a plain opportunity to prove that they admire the Corcoran for more than its handsome art collection and enviable real estate.
There’s no rescuing the institution known as the Corcoran from this final crisis. And neither the National Gallery nor George Washington is obligated to try, truthfully. But under the new dispensation, leaders at the college and gallery can restore and even improve upon the things that the old Corc got right. Here are six suggestions for ways that the National Gallery and GW can build stronger institutions for the District—a college and gallery that the extended Corcoran family can monitor with some pride, from Slade to the class of 2019.
Give Credit to Jayme McLellan
Refusing to allow Jayme McLellan to teach has to be the grossest blunder the Corcoran has ever made. More so than planning an expansion by Frank Gehry on the back of an AOL stock gift during the early 2000s. (Many museums succumbed to boom-time building madness.) More so even than kowtowing to Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and censoring Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989. (At least Christina Orr-Cahall thought the threat from Helms was legit.)
Those episodes involved powerful forces—the tech bubble, swooping titanium, the Culture Wars—and Corcoran leaders making bad decisions in good faith. (Yes, even during the Mapplethorpe saga.) That can’t be said of McLellan’s termination.
As an adjunct instructor and leader of the Save the Corcoran campaign, McLellan questioned the motives of trustees, demanding transparency and a full accounting for their decisions. On behalf of students, faculty, and staff, she sought answers through the courts that the Corcoran otherwise declined to provide. While the verdict wasn’t the one some hoped for, the judge acknowledged the campaign’s concerns. McLellan crossed her (part-time) employer, but she also stood on principle on behalf of the Corcoran.
If she was cut loose for fault, she should be told who made the decision and why. To recap: McLellan, an adjunct, had received orientation emails from her department head, but with registration for her class nearly full three weeks out from the start of the fall semester, she hadn’t yet received her contract. When she inquired, she was told she was cut, with no further explanation.
If McLellan wasn’t let go for a good reason, then George Washington University cannot let this shameful course of events stand. The fact that McLellan worked as an adjunct makes her case all the more precarious from an employment standpoint. This situation rather neatly illustrates the fact that the Corcoran intersects two typologies of crisis: the corporatization of cultural institutions as well as institutions of higher learning.
It’s beneath GW to decline to stand up for an adjunct because she’s an adjunct. Fortunately, this mistake is easily rectified: if not by restoring her to the professional-practices class she teaches, then by giving her a seat on what remains of the Corcoran’s board.
Pledge to Keep Tuition Low for All…
In too many ways, the situation at the Corcoran College of Art + Design resembles the catastrophe at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Peter Cooper established the New York college in 1859, a decade before William Corcoran opened the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Cooper Union was founded as a highly selective institution of art, architecture, and engineering, one that offered free tuition for every enrolled student. The school’s iron-clad endowment made that possible: Cooper owned the land on which the Chrysler Building was erected, among other Manhattan properties.
For more than 150 years, Cooper Union produced visionary architects, artists, and engineers, with an emphasis on theory and form. The school never turned any profit, which became a problem after the institution’s board lost its way. The story of how the Cooper’s board leveraged the school’s endowment through questionable business schemes (plus an unnecessary starchitect-designed expansion) is a tale for another day, but it echoes the sorry story of the Corcoran. The Free Cooper Union campaign to preserve the historic promise of the college—against leadership plans to start charging tuition—is bound for court, and the decision will depend upon a close reading of Cooper’s original trust.
George Washington doesn’t need to hike tuition on Corcoran students. In the same way that imposing tuition at Cooper Union would end its legacy as a highly selective but purely meritocratic college, raising tuition at the Corcoran to GW levels would forever change the character of the school. Neither the District nor the world needs another elitist art school.
…And Make Tuition Free for Many
The Corcoran College of Art + Design lost its individual accreditation on Aug. 22; as of this week, its accreditation flows through George Washington University. The Corc should nevertheless be held to a separate standard, if George Washington hopes in the wake of partition to preserve the school’s spirit.
One way it might do so is by setting the Corcoran apart from other art schools in terms of its funding. Right now, 65 percent of GW freshmen receive grants or scholarship aid, while 81 percent of incoming Corcoran students rely on grants or aid. Keep tuition where it’s been, and bolster the aid budget with GW’s deep pockets, and you have an institution that will attract some of the nation’s best applicants on the financial fundamentals alone. It’s not so simple, to be certain; bringing the Corcoran into the GW fold is bound to introduce new costs for both parties. But the point of absorbing the Corcoran was never to turn a profit. Instead, the art school is bound to serve as a loss leader for GW. The more prestigious the art school, the better it boosts George Washington’s brand.
No question, the resources that GW will bring to bear—in terms of infrastructure and personnel—are all badly needed at the Corcoran. GW can turn this school around by introducing bleeding-edge technology and more full-time and (hopefully) tenured faculty to a school staffed more and more in recent years by a (talented) skeleton crew. But it goes both ways. The Corcoran provides for GW, too, in the form of a profile-boosting cultural apparatus just a stone’s throw from the White House. Investing in that profile will be worth the cost, so long as GW is interested in acquiring more than a venue.
Launch an Arts Policy Institute
It’s charming to think of the alt kids of the Corcoran mingling with the young wonks at George Washington, but there’s no reason to think that a meeting of these left-brain and right-brain minds could not be terribly productive. George Washington should marry the two in an Arts Policy Institute.
Sure, American University has its Arts Management Program and the University of Maryland is absorbing the Kennedy Center’s DeVos Institute of Arts Management. I have no doubt that the Corcoran will launch one of these, too, since they’re an easy lure for aspiring professionals with too much money and not enough thinkfluence.
But there are just a handful of institutions devoted to research in the arts, Princeton’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies and the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center being two prominent examples. There’s room in the mix for a research institution devoted to understanding the social, political, and economic function of the arts—which accounted for 3.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2011, or $504 billion-with-a-B. Only Washington can produce the full-on think tank that the question deserves.
Bring Back the Corcoran Biennial
If most of these questions revolve around the role of GW, that’s because the partition gives them more of the Corcoran (the school, the money, and much of the building). The National Gallery of Art will be responsible for programming art exhibitions at what remains of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Washington is a much-changed city since 2005, the year of the 49th and final Corcoran Biennial. These days, thousands of residents can fight the rain to watch Rae Sremmurd and Migos perform at the Trillectro Festival, or line up to sip hundreds of artisanal beers at Snallygaster. There is no 2014 equivalent for the plastic arts—painting and photography (and beyond). Not even the poor man’s art-festival free-for-all, Artomatic.
To say that the National Gallery’s plans are opaque is an understatement: The NGA keeps its secrets like the NSA. But the museum could do a lot to bolster its engagement with contemporary art and younger residents alike by giving the Corcoran’s curators free reign to reintroduce a program that would see hundreds, no, thousands of Washingtonians line up at the entrance. It will be a shame if the only Corcoran program the National Gallery retains is the annual ball; this is an opportunity for the National Gallery to shed its topcoat for something hipper.
Keep It Real With the Legacy Gallery
When the National Gallery divvies up the collection at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, viewers have to pray that the inestimable collection of photography and media built by curators like Paul Roth and Philip Brookman stays relatively intact and close to home. In addition to picking out the paintings, sculpture, photography, and media art that it will cart over to the National Mall, the National Gallery has also consented to a Corcoran “legacy gallery”—a room or suite in the Beaux-Arts building to remind viewers what William Corcoran built. (The National Gallery will also program other contemporary art at the Corcoran.)
So let that legacy gallery be a living tribute, not a graveyard marked by a dusty plaque. There’s no memorial marker or collection hanging that can convey what the Corcoran means to Washington, but there’s a way to show how D.C. helped to form the Corcoran collection. A living legacy gallery could showcase the long history of D.C. art—something no museum has done since the Washington Gallery of Modern Art was bought by Oklahoma City in 1968. Plus, it might serve as a gateway institution for local artists working today, something to bridge the forbidding gap between the gallery circuit and the National Mall.
I can’t think of a better tribute to the Corcoran and its memory. I can think of many worse outcomes. The court case is over; next we find out how the decision will be carried out.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery