Jayme McLellan, founding director of Civilian Art Projects and a former Corcoran College of Art and Design professor, isn’t happy. As a co-founder of Save the Corcoran, an advocacy group that’s worked to keep the gallery and school intact in its current location, she’s helped convince the Corcoran board not to sell its historic home, the Flagg Building, and enjoyed a few other notable victories. Last week’s announcement that the Corcoran would split between the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University was not one of them. I chatted with McLellan about her reactions to last week’s events and what she sees on the horizon for the Corcoran.
WCP: What was your first reaction to Thursday’s announcement? Were you caught off guard?
McLellan: No. Save the Corcoran was expecting it.
What do you think this means for the future of all three institutions? For the future of the art and students?
Students will pay a lot more to go to art school in Washington. GW will get a beautiful building. NGA will get an amazing exhibition space and some of the best art in the world—for free, or a small rental charge. And D.C. will lose an important independent voice for creative expression, the oldest museum in D.C., its first art college, and its only community gallery space that regularly connects with local artists.
I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read Phillip Kennicott’s reaction—thoughtful, of course, but quite somber. What is it about this partnership that has people so skeptical?
Skeptical? Through bad management, we’ve lost something that is very important, culturally, for our community and indeed our country. The collection is to be dismantled, and history is lost. A nonprofit is not owned by individuals; it belongs to the community at large. The needs of the institution must be constantly weighed against the needs of the community. And the community needs the Corcoran collection intact and accessible. And the staff and faculty need their jobs, obviously.
This unqualified board has set a dangerous precedence for other community museums and schools. They have effectively said, “Go behind closed doors and decide the fate of thousands without their consent. Decide the fate of a 145-year-old historic art collection without your scholars and curators. Decide the fate of your school without your faculty…”
What do you think went wrong in the first place?
The board was unsuited to properly serve the institution and the community.
Was this outcome inevitable or was there more that could have been done?
It didn’t have to happen this way. Save the Corcoran reached out to the board on the day they announced they might need to put the building on the market. This was almost two years ago. We offered to do anything to help. Instead, we were given hollow community meetings with canned questions. They never wanted our input; they wanted us to leave them alone so they could do whatever they wanted with this precious institution.
What’s next for Save The Corcoran?
We’ll ask NGA/GWU to secure gallery space within the Corcoran for the perpetual display of D.C. artists, in addition to the legacy gallery for Mr. [William Wilson] Corcoran’s collection. And, of course, we eagerly await the D.C. Superior Court’s ruling on breaking Mr. Corcoran’s original deed and trust… Photo by Darrow Montgomery