At an all-staff meeting yesterday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, officials from the Corcoran and George Washington University gathered curators, faculty, and administrators to give them the news: the Corcoran would be absorbed. Staff shed tears as they learned that the college would become an adjunct of George Washington University and the museum’s art collection would soon belong to the National Gallery of Art and other bodies.
But there was one moment of levity, according to several people there.
“Someone asked [Corcoran consulting director] Peggy Loar, ‘It sounds like this is a dissolution of the Corcoran. Is it?'” says a faculty member who was present. “She punted the question to David Julyan. The attorney.” The room erupted in bitter laughter, according to those present.
By the time the meeting had concluded, Corcoran students had got word of the changes. On boards and flyers throughout the school, the words “Corcoran College of Art + Design” or “CCAD” were scrawled out and replaced with “GW.”
Although Loar introduced the all-staff meeting, it was led by George Washington University president Steven Knapp. No board members from the Corcoran were said to be present, and no one from the National Gallery of Art spoke at the meeting.
In a slideshow presentation, Knapp outlined details of what happens next. Students currently enrolled at the Corcoran and the next incoming class would pay current Corcoran tuition rates. Rates for future classes could change. (Corcoran undergraduates currently pay $30,930 for tuition. Undergraduate tuition at George Washington is $47,290.)
“There’s going to be no remnants of the old place left,” says one senior staffer, referring to a consistent theme of Corcoran executives as they’ve discussed their goals for the institution in recent years. “All the rhetoric about local art and community is just—it’s not even lip service being paid to it.”
As it stands now, the federal National Gallery of Art will assume responsibility over the private Corcoran art collection. Some works will be accessioned into the National Gallery’s collection; many works will be distributed to other museums, with a priority on keeping them local. The National Gallery will program contemporary art in the Corcoran museum space, which will be called the Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art. The building will also include a “Corcoran Legacy” gallery featuring works closely associated with the collection, according to yesterday’s announcement.
Faculty and staff spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sudden uncertainty of their employment. According to yesterday’s announcement, George Washington University will assume one-year contracts for full-time faculty. Faculty and staff who do not take on roles with George Washington University or the National Gallery of Art will be given a stipulated three-month severance package, according to those who attended the all-staff meeting. “Morale couldn’t be lower,” says the Corcoran faculty member.
Senior staff expressed similar fears. One senior curator worries the National Gallery would soon ask for help sorting through the collection to decide what will stay and what must go.
If the decision is approved by all three institutions’ boards in April, its impact will affect students and faculty at George Washington as well as at the Corcoran.
“I think the National Gallery of Art is a good fit, especially from a teaching perspective,” says James Huckenpahler, an adjunct instructor at George Washington University (and a sometimes adjunct at the Corcoran). “Bringing contemporary work into the space will be great for students. I think there’s only so far you can go with 19th century [art] in a 21st century teaching setting,” he says, referring to the Corcoran’s strong collection of American and European paintings from the 1800s.
Huckenpahler expressed some concerns about George Washington absorbing the Corcoran’s college, however. Neither the Corcoran nor GW’s art program, he says, has a longtime leader that has crafted a vision for the future that faculty at both colleges can rally behind.
“I mainly wonder about GW students using Corcoran facilities,” says Audrey Melton, a photojournalism undergraduate at the Corcoran. “The school is so small and I just hope they figure out accommodations if there is some new influx of students.” She says that enrolling as a George Washington student did not hold any particular appeal. “I just hope we get the financial help we need and keep the amazing faculty,” she explains. “We already have fairly well-rounded humanities offerings.”
On Facebook, Twitter, and in conversation, Corcoran alum and staff expressed dismay. Three senior staffers interviewed by Arts Desk had not been made aware of any changes coming before the meeting. Most say they still thought the Corcoran would partner with the University of Maryland, a potential partnership announced last April.
Then, as now, Corcoran leaders announced the framework of the deal before any details were made available. Rumors began to emerge late last year that the Maryland agreement had fallen through, even though it was portrayed to the press and community as a done deal. The Maryland false start followed an October 2012 announcement that the Corcoran was pursuing a partnership with George Washington University and the National Gallery.
In June 2012, City Paper first reported that the Corcoran was considering selling its building and moving elsewhere in the region. The problems at the Corcoran have persisted since at least 2007.
“Honestly, I have no clue what to think,” says Melton, a sophomore. “We were informed of [the decision] via email 15 minutes after the first article was published.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery