I’ve been struggling with what to say about the Wednesday announcement from The Corcoran Gallery of Art that it will cease to exist and it’s respective parts will be subsumed by the George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art. Part of the reason I’ve been having such a hard time with this, is because I am a docent there.
I found out about the decision much in the same way most others did…through an end-of-the-day email from The Corcoran saying, by the way, here’s a letter from Peggy Loar on what’s happening to us. By the time they sent the email, I already knew because I had read about it in The Washington Post and in Facebook posts (Corcoran Curator Sarah Cash’s post was probably the best one I read). From what I understand, even staff weren’t told before the Post article came out. This is the type of behavior that has become emblematic of what the Wall Street Journal described as “mismanagement on a near-epic scale.”
The demise of one of America’s oldest museums, and the first museum in this country to focus exclusively on collecting contemporary American art, is a catastrophic event for the nation, but more so for the District of Columbia and the local arts community. No other museum in Washington has had an impact on the arts community of this city like the Corcoran has had. Almost every single person I know who is an artist, a gallerist, a collector, a patron, or any other member of the local arts community has a unique relationship with the Corcoran and its school. There is no other Washington museum that can claim the same unique relationship with DC artists; not the Phillips, not the Kreeger, not the National Gallery of Art and least of all the Smithsonian.
The DC arts community loses the most by the dissolution of the museum as we know it, the subsuming of the school and the inevitable scattering of the collection. I have loved every moment of being a docent at The Corcoran and love the collection in a very personal way. When the Corcoran took down George Bellows’ 42 Kids to loan to the NGA for it’s Bellows exhibit last year I missed it so much; I would walk by where it used to hang and wish it was there. But I knew that it would be back, and when I saw it as part of the NGA exhibit (which was amazing) I was so happy to see it! It was like a visit with an old friend, and I loved seeing it in the context of the rest of Bellows’ works, but I also loved the fact that as the exhibit wound-down, I knew it would be returning to The Corcoran. When the Corcoran rehung the American collection last year, 42 Kids was back in the galleries, in a new spot, given better lighting, placement and prominence.
There are so many pieces in the Corcoran’s collection I have grown to love in peculiar ways, whether it’s the showstopper pieces like Frederic Church’s Niagara, Singer Sargent’s En Route Pour La Peche, Joan Mitchell’s Salut Tomor Hopper’s Ground Swell. Or quieter pieces like Richard Norris Brooke’s A Pastoral Visit, Jean Chardin’s Scullery Maid, Robert Mangold’s Five-Color Frame or Thomas Cole’s Departure and Return. William Wilson Corcoran collected works that were contemporary for their time, and that philosophy drove the earliest inklings he had for his collection and the museum he envisioned. He was bold in that way for his time, collecting American contemporary artists when everyone else was still obsessed with Europe.
Boldness and vision were at the core of the Corcoran’s founding, but the mismanagement of it left room for neither, or rather the lack of both contributed to the mismanagement. Real leadership is about combining vision with execution, something that the Corcoran in these last two decades never seemed to be able to achieve.
There is more to say, and more to be written on this matter. I won’t try to fit it all into a blog post here, but I felt that I needed to say something now, today. I’ve always kept the fact that I was a docent at the Corcoran anonymous, but this latest development was too much for me to continue staying silent. This heartache is real.