The Corcoran Gallery of Art officially closed for renovations Sept. 28 after changing ownership to the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University.
The National Gallery of Art will take ownership of all artwork in the museum, which is located on 500 17th St NW; the museum, which will house contemporary and modern art, will be renamed the Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art.
George Washington University will operate the Corcoran College of Art and Design, though it remains undecided how exactly it will be integrated into the university and what tuition former Corcoran students will pay. The classes at the Corcoran will continue to take place in the Corcoran building, and the tuition will stay the same at least for this school year.
About 50 board members, staff members, former students, artists and other supporters gathered Sept. 27 for a “funeral” for the formerly privately owned gallery, complete with speeches, tours of the gallery and the ceremonial laying of a wreath on the Corcoran family mausoleum.
“We are left with a gorgeous building, but it is no longer the Corcoran, but a cenotaph, a memorial to something that is not there, an empty tomb,” former director Michael Botwinick said in a statement read at the funeral by former public relations chief Carolyn Campbell.
The D.C. Superior Court approved the takeover of both the gallery and the college by the National Gallery and GWU last month, after months of deliberation and delay since the announcement of the takeover in February. Curators from both the National Gallery and the original Corcoran staff will review the pieces from the Corcoran collection to determine which will be kept within the National Gallery and which will be offered to other museums.
Founded in 1869, the Corcoran Gallery, known for its broad collection of exhibitions with an emphasis on American art and strong support of local artists, was one of D.C.’s longest standing privately supported institutions.
“It is a genuine loss for local artists, and for the many people in the D.C. area, from preschoolers to post-grad, who were able to receive an excellent art education here,” said Lisa Strong, director of Georgetown’s Art and Museum Studies M.A. Program. Strong worked as a curator at the Curatorial Department of the Corcoran from July 2010 to June 2014.
According to John Morrell, Associate professor of painting and drawing at Georgetown, the future of the Corcoran depends on the dedication of the National Galley and GWU, and remains uncertain.
“It was a very integral part of the art community for over a century here in Washington, and people feel very strongly one way or another about its future,” Morrell said. “It’s sad to think that the Corcoran legacy will be seen mostly on labels from here on out, but only time will tell. It’s an unknown future that will be determined by the players involved.”
Strong agreed that the D.C. community would feel the loss of the gallery.
“It presented an independent and unique perspective on contemporary art. Its small size and close relationship with the local art community meant that it could mount shows that the big, federally funded institutions could not. That point of view is lost forever,” she said.
The Corcoran Gallery struggled financially in the years preceding the D.C. Superior Court decision, finishing its 2012 fiscal year with a deficit $9.2 million and its 2013 fiscal year with a deficit of $5.5 million. Strong said that the increasing budget cuts made the operation of the museum difficult as it neared its end.
“I watched as the staff fought to hold the standards of the profession in the face of dramatic budget cuts and cancelled exhibitions. It was very difficult to see the staff contend with the shrinking resources of the museum,” she said.
The Corcoran is projected to re-open as part of the National Gallery of Art in 2015. Fifteen Corcoran staff members and curators, together with multiple members of the National Gallery, are working to smooth the transition.
“The National Gallery of Art will present important works from the Corcoran collection, as well as vibrant and exciting special exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, so we anticipate that the Corcoran will continue to be an important focal point for the community interested in both American and modern art,” Deborah Ziska, National Gallery chief of press and public information, wrote in an email to The Hoya.
GWU is assuming ownership of Corcoran College and the building itself, reserving the front galleries for contemporary exhibits from the National Gallery.
“The school is still operating and classes are continuing as normal,” Kurtis Hiatt, GWU associate director of media relations, said of Corcoran College. “Like the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran, when it reopens after the renovation in late 2015, will be open free of charge.”