Last week, Washington witnessed a death that has been predicted year after year since at least the late 1960s. And yet, after so many identity crises and near-death experiences and especially the trauma of the last five years, the demise of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design as we know it arrived as a wrenching shock. If the boards of the Corcoran and the organizations that hope to swallow it—the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University—approve a proposed plan in April, this failure will be its final one.

The conviction that death can be delayed has been core to the Corcoran’s constitution in recent years. By all accounts, in the months running up to the announcement last Wednesday that the Corcoran would be absorbed, there was hope. In September, the Corcoran won $10 million in a settlement with the estate of heiress Huguette Clark and half the proceeds of anything over $25 million in the sale of Monet’s “Water Lilies.” It received an unexpected bequest, of about $5 million, from a donor last fiscal year. Plus, talks were proceeding with the University of Maryland: According to UMD president Wallace Loh, Maryland officials met with their counterparts at the Corcoran to discuss details of a partnership that would solve (or restructure) the Corcoran’s problems two weeks before news broke of the Corcoran’s dissolution.

And yet the Corcoran’s fate always felt certain to some longtime Corcoran watchers. Susan Rosenbaum, who served as the Corcoran’s former vice president for external affairs, says that a takeover felt like destiny back in the early 1990s. “One of the things we talked about from Day One: The National Gallery is going to take us over,” she says.

Here at the end, the Corcoran finds itself in familiar hands. Under the plan announced last week, the college will be absorbed by GW, a school with which the Corcoran has shared a long history. The Corcoran’s founder, William Wilson Corcoran, served as a GW trustee, giving the university its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the building for its School of Medicine.
Now GW will get another edifice from Mr. Corcoran: the Flagg Building, which since 1897 has served as the Beaux-Arts home for his gallery and college. Meanwhile, the National Gallery will absorb much of the Corcoran’s vast and varied art collection, whose value is estimated at $2 billion, showing some of it in the GW-run Flagg Building and sending whatever’s left to other museums.

In absorbing the Corcoran college and campus, GW also picks up certain Corcoran obligations. University president Steven Knapp has said he doesn’t think that renovation costs will rise to $130 million—a figure bandied about by Corcoran leaders when they were trying to persuade skeptics they should sell the building. For starters, GW won’t restore as much of the building to serve as museum space as an independent Corcoran might have. That cost will be decided by new building experts and architects.

But there’s no waving off the Corcoran’s larger financial struggles—especially its decline in fundraising. Tax filings show the Corcoran taking in $13 million in charitable gifts in fiscal year 2007, $8.2 million in FY2008, $6.6 million in FY2009, and only $4.4 million in FY2010. Gifts, donations, and grants fell to $3.2 million for both 2011 and 2012. This period, of course, coincides with a lasting global recession. And giving at the Corcoran rebounded to $7 million in FY2013, buoyed by that unexpected bequest.

Yet the Phillips Collection—a close cousin to the Corcoran in terms of history, scope, and off-the-Mall status—navigated the same rocky waters. Although it’s a smaller institution, the Phillips drew more in charitable gifts than the Corcoran every year from 2007 to 2012. Plus, the Phillips drew substantially larger gifts—“excess contributions” taking the form of large donations from individuals, corporations, or private foundations. According to records, between FY2008 and FY2012, the Corcoran garnered just $804,459 in contributions defined as “excess” for tax purposes. Over that period, the Phillips drew in $23 million in excess contributions. It garnered $16.4 million and $19.8 million in gifts in 2009 and 2010, driven by large trustee contributions meant to “scaffold the museum during the national economic downturn,” according to Director of Marketing and Communications Sarah Schaffer. Trustees also gave large contributions to welcome Director Dorothy Kosinski in 2008. While the Phillips flourished, the Corcoran crashed.

Instead, the Corcoran relied on the sales of assets to offset deficits. Miami art collectors Don and Mera Rubell bought the former Randall School from the Corcoran for $6.5 million in 2010. (The Corcoran acquired the school from the city in 2006, but never developed it.) Between 2010 and 2011, the Corcoran monetized a 99-year lease with Carr Properties for its 16,000-square-foot parking lot, making $20.5 million. The school never got around to selling its satellite campus in Georgetown, so GW gets that now, too.

While the dissolution of the area’s oldest private museum is unprecedented, it follows a significant change in leadership. The last slate of executives to steer the Corcoran hail from the worlds of venture capital, private equity, and market consultancies. Of this bunch—Chairman Harry F. Hopper III, Chief Operating Officer Lauren Garcia, former President and Director Fred Bollerer—only Interim Museum Director Peggy Loar, appointed in April 2013, has any experience leading a museum. Only Hopper, who sat on the board of visitors at George Mason University, has experience working with a college.

Compare the Corcoran’s collapse today to one of its earlier disasters. Rosenbaum, who was with the Corcoran from 1992 to 1996, says she was the first hire under former Director David Levy, who oversaw the rebuilding of the institution following its first major scandal—in 1989, when then-Director Christina Orr-Cahall canceled an exhibit of the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe amid pressure from conservatives in Congress. Levy, tasked with restoring the fundraising apparatus of a museum that had become a symbol of cultural capitulation, helped put the Corcoran on positive footing. Rosenbaum says that on her first day, 12 weeks to the end of the fiscal year, the Corcoran was facing down bankruptcy. Lunch by lunch, she says (“I had lunch with everyone in the city”), the Corcoran arrived at solvency and even stayed there for a few years, courtesy big donors like Time Warner, American Express, and Philip Morris.

But in 2005, the institution failed to raise funds for an addition by Frank Gehry. (In part for reasons that can’t be blamed on the Corcoran: 9/11 diverted traffic adjacent to the White House, while the value of a stock gift that was key to the Gehry campaign bottomed out.) Another blunder followed a year later: Levy’s successor, Paul Greenhalgh, fired five curators—half the curatorial staff—before his first day on the job, including Chief Curator Jacquelyn Serwer (now the chief curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture).

The final throes of the Corcoran come as such a blow today because there was no 9/11. There was no abandoned addition. No Jesse Helms or Robert Mapplethorpe. (And apparently no American Express or Time Warner or Philip Morris.) Instead there were five years of Corcoran leaders stripping the institution for parts, then handing off the assets that couldn’t be sold. Access to the new Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art, may be free—but the cost of free is frightfully high.

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The dissolution of the Corcoran could contain smaller misfortunes, of course.

“It would be tragic if GW didn’t rehire” professors at the Corcoran, says Catherine Thompson, class of 2007. She names instructors Janis Goodman, Doug Lang, and Mark Cameron Boyd—as do many students and alumni who reached out via Facebook and email—as key to the Corcoran experience.

“I never had Scip Barnhart”—many messages start off this way, almost apologetically—“but he was part of the reason I ended up at the Corcoran, because at a portfolio day he gave me this really amazing review and gave me books to read, movies to watch, and real advice on how to improve my work rather than the basic impersonal interactions I had with other schools that day,” says Corcoran alum Emilia Olsen. “Like when you compare that to [the Rhode Island School of Design]? All they said was ‘your work is unresolved.’”

The National Gallery and George Washington University employ helpful staff, talented professors, and noteworthy curators. Which is why staffers and students alike are worried that the institution is being viewed in terms of its balance sheet—as if the Flagg Building were more integral to the college than instructors such as Susan Sterner, Georgia Deal, and Muriel Hasbun. As if the modern photography or European painting collections were more valuable than curators Philip Brookman, Sarah Cash, and Sarah Newman.

The answers could come in April, if the boards at the National Gallery, GW, and the Corcoran have agreed to the funereal work of dismantling the institution. Faculty who go on to GW will be offered one-year contracts; any nonfaculty staff who go will receive a minimum 6-month contract. Staffers who don’t get picked up by the National Gallery or GW will get a minimum of three months’ notice and “the most generous support and severance package the Corcoran can offer,” according to a fact sheet provided by GW.

For now—and with many staffers-turned-outsiders fearing that the worst is yet to come—the question of who is to blame may not be as relevant as when.

“When news broke that Board was considering selling the building, it felt like every conversation I had placed the beginning of the Museum’s decline to an earlier and earlier point,” writes Blair Murphy, the former program director of the Washington Project for the Arts, on her blog. “One D.C. artist I spoke with argued that the Museum had never recovered from declining to purchase the collection of the shuttered Washington Gallery of Modern Art. That was in 1968.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery