Nearly a century-and-a-half after it opened as Washington’s first private art museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its accompanying college are being parceled out to the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, as the Corcoran can no longer support itself as an independent organization.
The three institutions announced an agreement today in which the NGA will take over the Corcoran’s 17,000-piece collection while GWU will absorb the art and design school and take over the iconic Beaux Arts building on 17th St., Northwest. Although the Corcoran’s interim director, Peggy Loar, describes the transition in an announcement as “wonderful news,” it punctuates a financial decline for the long-struggling museum.
The Corcoran has been hemmoraging at least $7 million a year for several years on a budget of roughly $30 million. And its building, which opened in 1897, needs an estimated $130 million in repairs, although GWU President Steven Knapp tells the Washington Post he believes that assessment is high. The Corcoran had previously explored a partnership with the University of Maryland.
While the Corcoran’s students will remain in the building it and their school become parts of GWU, museum visitors will see even bigger changes. After it takes over the collection, the NGA will present modern art exhibits in the Corcoran building, but under the name “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art.” It will also stage exhibits of older work from the Corcoran’s collection. Admission to the galleries will be free, but the museum experience seems destined to be pared down.
But other works from the Corcoran may wind up with the National Gallery. While they’d be labeled as coming from the private collection, the merger announced today hints that one of the Corcoran’s defining qualities—promoting local art like last year’s “Pump Me Up” showcase of DC’s 1980s subcultures—will fade.
“The Corcoran’s great cultural, educational, and civic resources, which are at the heart of this city, will not only remain in Washington but will become stronger, more exciting, and more widely accessible, in a way that stays centered on the Corcoran’s dedication to art and mission of encouraging American genius and opens the galleries to all for free,” Loar says in her announcement.
The deal needs to be approved by the boards of trustees of all three institutions by April 7. As for the entity known as Corcoran, it will continue as a non-profit organization that will advise the NGA and GWU on their new stewardship of the museum and college.