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It’d be almost easier for District artists to win representation on Capitol Hill than representation on the National Mall. With a few exceptions—favorite sons Jim Sanborn, Sam Gilliam, Martin Puryear, the old Washington Color School guys—local artists are perennially underserved by the art institutions that call the capital city home. And fair enough, it’s not the taxpayer’s job to fund national museums that cater to the townies. But it’s in many museums’ interest to do so. Genuine local talent can deliver the contemporary audiences that old, stiff institutions yearn to attract.
The National Museum of African Art and the National Museum of the American Indian both delivered contemporary shows over the last year: Yinka Shonibar MBE and Brian Jungen, respectively. American Indian immediately followed up with an install of its contemporary native art collection, which just opened. Neither of these artists are local, but curators for both museums described these big-get shows as efforts, at least in part, to suss out a younger, enthusiastic crowd. Consider the Corcoran the latest to pick up on the contemporary thread with its NOW program, which debuted with a focused show of works by Spencer Finch and a big-ticket gala last weekend. When the NOW program debuted in September, the Corcoran also opened a new look at its permanent collection. The new install surveys its modern and contemporary holdings and, within that view, includes a gloss of the museum’s art from Washington. This local look is as fine a treatment as local artists have received from any D.C. museum in recent memory, the boon of a contemporary arms race in which museums like the Phillips Collection, under director Dorothy Kosinski, has commissioned local artists for contemporary projects.
D.C. according to the Corcoran is more than a mere Color School closeup (though the Corc offers that, too). Jefferson Pinder leads the local holdings with a large sculpture, Mothership (Capsule), 2009, a piece that incorporates wood from the inaugural platform of Corcoran neighbor President Barack Obama. The work comes courtesy of local collector Henry Thaggert. From the Podesta collection comes a piece by Yuriko Yamaguchi. There is an early Maggie Michael painting, a couple of Jim Sanborn puzzles (he may be overrepresented at D.C. museums at this point), and even an offering from Cool “Disco” Dan. Capital City, stand up.
For the Corcoran, the new contemporary emphasis reconnects with a tradition that the museum has only recently neglected. The last exhibit in the Corc’s biennial program—its 48th, “Closer to Home,” which closed in the summer of 2005—was unceremonially dropped as biennials lost favor across the nation in favor of splurgerrific art fairs such as the Armory Show in New York and Art Basel Miami Beach.
A more modest, nimble, and specifically local contemporary art program was also abandoned—regrettably—after its first iteration. “CENSUS 03: New Art From D.C.” promised and delivered on artists who are for the most part still prominent in the District, including Michael, her husband Dan Steinhilber, Randall Packer, and Matthew Sutton. Iona Rozeal Brown only recently left for greener pastures (i.e., New York), and Graham Caldwell still shows in D.C.
Only the most ardent District cheerleader would press national museums to show District artists as a matter of course—though the toll on local artists can be heavy. They grow up on the National Mall, learning its collections and curators. But they wind up with fewer opportunities to show there than, say, Seattle artists have at the Seattle Art Museum. But museums like the Hirshhorn, the Corcoran, the Phillips and even the National Gallery East Wing have every reason to pursue Pinder, whose work is persuasive and important. That he is a home-grown talent without local opportunities to show in a larger setting than the commercial gallery should not count against him.
If the Corcoran can fill that gap by, say, putting Washington photographer Chan Chao on the same walls as Nan Goldin and Alec Soth, so much the better. It’s a bold claim, and one the Corcoran is ideally suited to test.