One of the oldest private museums in the United States will be no more. On Monday, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., received permission from a Superior Court judge to merge with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University. The National Gallery will take the art, while the university absorbs the Corcoran’s College of Art + Design. (The Washington Post and Washington City Paper have good primers on the decision and what it all means.)
This spells an end to the years-long financial troubles, along with a last-minute Hail Mary legal challenge by a group called Save the Corcoran, which sought to keep the museum independent.
For art-loving geeks like myself, however, the big question now is what will happen to the museum’s collection? And when and where will we get to see the art again?
According to the terms of the deal, the National Gallery of Art will take the pieces it wants and distribute the rest to other D.C. art institutions. Transfer of any Corcoran works to entities outside the District of Columbia will require the approval of D.C.'s attorney general. Also part of the deal: The Corcoran can’t deaccession (a.k.a. sell) any work.
So, what happens next?
First, the National Gallery gets to decide what it wants. The Corcoran’s collection includes roughly 17,000 objects, including an estimated 6,000 works on paper. For months curators and technicians from the National Gallery have been evaluating the portion of the collection housed at the museum’s Flagg Building, its Beaux-Arts exhibition space across from the White House. A considerable amount of work also is held in storage at a facility in Maryland.
“I think the they might get the review done by the end of the year,” says Peggy Loar, the Corcoran’s interim director and president. “They’ve been through the roughly 6,000 pieces that are in our building. There are things that are in storage, that are crated up, so that could take some time. It could go into February.”
Once the National Gallery has the full list of objects and condition reports, it can begin to decide what will stay and what will go. There is no telling how long that process might take.
The bigger deadline for anyone who might be interested in seeing the collection as the museum’s founder, William Corcoran, intended is Oct. 1. That’s when the Corcoran’s galleries at the Flagg will shut down for a much-needed renovation that will run into 2015. No date has been set for the galleries to reopen.
“We think the renovation will take at least seven months,” says Loar. “We’re not sure. You just never know what you’re going to find when you do work on a 19th century building.”
When the Flagg Building does reopen it will be under the auspices of George Washington University. As part of this, gallery space will be reduced, but a so-called “legacy gallery” will continue to display works from the Corcoran’s collection.
According to Loar, these exhibitions will be organized by curators from the National Gallery. “It will be a series of rotating exhibitions,” she says. “I’m not sure exactly how many times a year the exhibitions will change. I imagine at least four.”
Naturally, the Corcoran is spinning this decision as the best possible outcome given the museum’s precarious financial circumstances.
“If you think about the art historical nature of the collection, it’s part of the nation’s patrimony,” says Loar. “Who better to take care of it but the National Gallery? We haven’t had the money needed to take care of it for a long time: the money to conserve it, digitize it, to give it the kind of accessibility it should have.”
But the dissolution of the Corcoran is still a bummer. Museums are places that tell stories. And the best museums tell those stories in unique, even quirky ways. The story of the Corcoran is of a search for a uniquely American identity.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art first opened its doors in Washington in 1874 with a sum of 98 paintings and sculptures. It was the brainchild of William Corcoran, a wealthy banker who collected art and other objects throughout his life but became truly taken with the practice after a spell in Europe. (He was a Southern sympathizer and spent the Civil War years abroad.)
His time in Europe, says Loar, filled Corcoran with the desire to do for American artists what European collectors did for the Europeans. “The war was ending and America was making its own way,” says Loar. “He started collecting the painters of the great American West because they were all headed out there.”
That’d be painters like Albert Bierstadt and other Hudson River School artists who were known for their Edenic American landscapes. These were the sorts of painters who, along with the railroad, practically helped induce Westward expansion.
Corcoran’s collection was one of the largest private collections of American art during the period. And when he opened his museum he was collecting work by Americans at a time when no other institutions were doing so, says Loar.
To walk the Corcoran’s galleries is to understand this story. Along with the story of the American artists whose work lined its walls. Artists like Bierstadt, a savvy self-promoter who lived large — he was almost scalped and had a taste for mansions and pricey objets — yet died in relative obscurity.
I’m sure the National Gallery will take perfectly good (if not better) care of these works. But there is something about seeing them together, presented in ways that reflect the peculiar obsessions of their collector, that gives the work an additional historical oomph.
The Bierstadt canvas at the top of this post, “The Last of the Buffalo,” is part of the Corcoran’s collection. It is one of the Bierstadt’s later works: a last-gasp attempt to capture the romance of Indian life on the Plains as it fast disappeared. And, according to one critic, it was also an elegy for the artist’s own vanishing art career.
It is a painting about memory, a record of the things we have lost, or are about to lose. It’s a fitting piece to see in an institution that is about to become a thing of the past.
If you find yourself on the Eastern seaboard, you have six weeks to pay your respects. The Corcoran Gallery of Art will be open through Sept. 30 at 500 17th St. NW, Washington, D.C., corcoran.org.
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.