Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The Corcoran, our MCI or Enron, dissolves

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The Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran College of Art and Design are no more. The Washington Post’s David Montgomery, whose reporting on the Corcoran saga has been excellent, has the story. While there are details to be worked out, the plan, in short, is this: The art is going to the National Gallery of Art, which will keep some of it and which will send much of it to other institutions. The school and building are going to Corcoran neighbor George Washington University. The National Gallery of Art will exhibit contemporary art and some Corcoran “legacy” material in GWU’s Corcoran building. I’ll save discussion of that arrangement for another time.

None of this is a surprise. The inevitability of the Corcoran’s demise was clear in 2008. It was even clearer in 2012 when the Corcoran’s latest round of financial woes became public. Instead of planning for a smooth transition into obsolescence, a series of truly awful Corcoran boards held on, frittering away cultural capital: both tens of millions of dollars and valuable real estate. When it comes to leadership, the Corcoran boards of the last decade are the rough non-profit equivalents of the boards that ran MCI and Enron in the for-profit sector. Like trustees at MCI and Enron, Corcoran trustees committed no crimes, but they numbly bumbled, doing much damage on the way down.

That’s not to say there weren’t Corcoran trustees who wanted to make a positive, meaningful difference. There were. Over the last half dozen years I’ve spoken with many of them. They felt like they were ignored by a series of board executives who didn’t want to address, let alone admit, the obvious.

There are still good people at the Corcoran, good curators and preparators and so on. I hope they stay in Washington. (Corcoran chief curator and photography expert Philip Brookman would be the most interesting curator in the National Gallery’s somnolent photo department.) They are among the best parts of the Corcoran’s legacy and Washington and its institutions would benefit from their wisdom, their experience and their institutional memory. They deserve better than their leaders provided. So did art and so did Washington.

[Image of the Corcoran via Flickr user Adam Fagen.]

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  1. David Ross says:

    I agree this is sad, and that the Corcoran has long been a tragic institution,, but this is not such a bad outcome.

  2. James H. says:

    “Instead of planning for a smooth transition into obsolescence,” …

    how about, “instead of the board getting it’s shit together and raising money” ??? I know – we’ve beaten that dead horse before, but I’ve seen other institutions in peril, saved by someone with enough vision to rally funding.

  3. […] Tyler Green analyzes the Corc meltdown, saying it's been in the tea leaves since 2008. (Though some would argue it's been longer than that.) [Modern Art Notes] […]

  4. Christopher Knight says:

    David, who said it was “a bad outcome”? No one. What was said is that the Corc’s exec leadership frittered away valuable resources through ineptitude over many years. Why you think that deserves a smiley-face pass is beyond me.

  5. Chris Crosman says:

    Such a shame. While the staff issues are heartbreaking and potentially very damaging to D.C’s small cadre of exemplary museum professionals, there is also institutional memory that will be lost. The Corcoran is among the oldest art museums in this country and its collection–intact–tells an important story about the vicissitudes of taste and patronage in American culture. While a few of the best known works from a stellar collection of American art will no doubt be integrated into the National Gallery’s collection. Using the existing 17th century building for contemporary art is also problematic, given skylights, fixed walls, and architectural ornament that has long flummoxed curators seeking to impose contemporary esthetics onto one of the grand dames of American museum architecture. Sure, the contrast between old and new can work (i.e. Albright-Knox) but a more graceful solution would be to re-install the Corcoran with it’s own collection–and maybe allocate a gallery to showcase contemporary work that comments on and informs the earlier art. In other words, the folks envisioning the Corcoran’s future as a venue have got the format exactly reversed. Showcasing the collection would at least preserve a semblance of the museum’s long and distinguished history, a museum of how museum’s used to work by simply exhibiting great and sometimes quirky works of art.

  6. […] Tyler Green analyzes the Corc meltdown, saying it's been in the tea leaves since 2008. (Though some would argue it's been longer than that.) [Modern Art Notes] […]

  7. Linda Crocker Simmons, Curator Emerita, The Corcoran gallery of Art 1869-2014 says:

    The Corcoran is much more than a museum of photography and has a staff with many professionals in addition to Philip Brockman. They too – the curators, educators, preparators, conservation specialists and registrars like Ken, Sarah, Dare, Beth – have served the Corcoran long and well. They all deserve to be treated better than appears to be provided by this latest disaster plan. The Washington community, you and I, deserve better too. The collection of 17,000 odd items combined with the Corcoran’s archives is really a “family album” of the DC art world over the past 2 centuries. No where else do you find this history preserved in such depth and breadth. The Corcoran’s collection is richer in its entirely, warts, wonders, icons and hiccups of art included, than it ever will be divided, scattered around the city or Beltway.

  8. Tyler Green says:


  9. Eleanor Harvey says:

    This whole downward spiral is tragic–and an object lesson for museum leadership and board leadership. I find it interesting that there is such a short time frame in which the parties involved are to hammer out all of the issues surfaced so far (April 7). More curious is the statement that GW would not have to renovate the Corcoran building to museum standards–puzzling, if NGA plans to install exhibitions there. Of course it will have to have galleries brought up/kept up to museum standards. Not to mention finding a way to satisfy the terms of the original trust that founded the Corcoran. Sounds to me like the parties (including the DC Attorney General) have a lot of work to do to get on the same page.

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