Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Demise of the Corcoran Gallery

My fond memory of time spent in Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery  becomes more precious today, learning of the venerable institution’s imminent take-over by the National Gallery of Art. I loved wandering the stately Beaux-Arts galleries, absorbing the masterfully executed 19th century American landscapes in the collection. There was a lot of other work on display, but none of it spoke to me the way the stunning landscapes did ... works by the likes of Albert Bierstadt, Jasper Cropsey, Sanford Gifford, Martin JohnsonHeade and Frederic Edwin Church.  

I especially love Church’s spectacular panoramic Niagara Falls. (I have a small framed reproduction of Niagara Falls, but it comes nowhere near the impact of the 8’-long original!)    

The Corcoran’s world-renowned collection of American art dating from 1718 to 1945 began as the private holdings of William Wilson Corcoran. His initial collection of landscape paintings, genre scenes, portraits, and sculptures has grown to encompass over 500 paintings, 200 sculptures, and 2,400 works on paper. Key 20th-century acquisitions were made beginning in 1907, with the advent of the Corcoran’s Biennial. The collection’s particular strengths include Hudson River School painting, American Impressionism, and early 20th-century realism. 

The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott says of the decision: “Everything that was darkly whispered about the Corcoran’s board over the past few years has come to pass: After decades of erratic and often incompetent leadership, it has seen the institution through to its demise. They will hand over the art to the National Gallery, which will take the pick of the lot and then distribute the rest through some program yet to be announced.” 

The museum has been grappling with deficits for years. As a private institution, it has been among the few galleries in DC to charge an entry fee, hampering its ability to attract visitors. The debt load is huge, the endowment has shrunk, and the 19th century premises are in need of about $100 million worth of renovation and repairs. 

While there are positives associated with the proposal, it is sad that one of the great 19th-century collections will be dismantled. Although the best work will stay in Washington,  a significant portion will be distributed to art institutions around the country. The Corcoran collection consists of 17,000 works of art valued at $2 billion.  

Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery, described the Corcoran building as having “arguably the most beautiful galleries of any museum in the United States.” He said that the National Gallery needs additional space, and the plan provides the Corcoran site for presenting exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. 

Besides the National Gallery, the deal includes George Washington University, which will take over 124-year-old Corcoran College of Art + Design.  The boards of the three institutions are expected to approve the proposal in April.

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