As the National Gallery of Art moves toward absorbing the Corcoran Gallery of Art, there are many questions about how this will work: What will the National Gallery of Art do with all of the Corcoran’s art? What exactly will the sub-euphonious “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art” be, and is cleaving contemporary art from the NGA’s main campus the right thing to do? What does the loss of a museum of mostly American art mean for the field? And, perhaps most of all, will the National Gallery of Art be able to earn for itself any of the love that so many Washingtonians have had for the Corcoran, which, until the institutional embarrassments of the last few years, was the art museum most-beloved by Washington artfolk?
I’ll address those questions in order. First, the National Gallery will almost certainly put the the vast majority of the Corcoran’s art in storage. It has nowhere else to put it, even after the East Building re-opens in 2017. The NGA’s pending ‘Corcoran acquisition’ spotlights one of the most prominent failures of 71-year-old director Rusty Powell’s 22-year tenure: The NGA’s inability to meaningfully expand. As I’ve written since at least 2008, the National Gallery has consistently failed to successfully address its need for more space, especially for more gallery space. Whether due to complacency, disinterest or a lack of imagination, institutional stasis has left the National Gallery in poor position to share its good fortune with the American public.
Yesterday I detailed dozens — but by no means all — of the top-drawer works the NGA will likely absorb from the Corcoran’s collection. Expect just a handful of those — such as Church’s Niagara, a van Goyen landscape, the Dou cabinet picture (at right), at least one of the monumental Bierstadts, a Cecelia Beaux — to be near-locks to be on view at the NGA after an NGA-Corcoran deal is finalized. That leaves scores, maybe hundreds, of major artworks that we won’t see for years. The NGA has not prepared for the ways in which its own collection has grown in the last couple decades, let alone for an unexpected bounty such as this.
But what about the space the NGA will inherit from the Corcoran, the Flagg Building, which the NGA hopes will become known as the “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art?” It is not yet clear how much of the Flagg Building the National Gallery will program. But in order to consider the new space and how the NGA plans to use it, let’s step back to examine how the NGA programs its most recent building, the 36-year-old East Building: Until it closed for renovation, a small suite of galleries on street level was home to small 19th-century French paintings. Another small suite of galleries on the ground level was used for temporary exhibitions of mostly either American or contemporary art. The second-floor galleries were temporary exhibition space, as were some of the galleries upstairs, on the third floor. That floor was also home to an awkward suite of three-to-five galleries where modern art, such as works by O’Keeffe, Picasso, Matisse, Klimt and Kupka, were installed. Below street grade was the NGA’s popular but dated Calder gallery, plus a small set of contemporary spaces, with art from Pollock, Newman and Rothko through Johns, Diebenkorn and Byron Kim. (Byron Kim? Byron Kim.) One of the building’s towers was used as a gallery for small exhibitions of contemporary art, and two other towers will be opened as galleries when the renovations are complete.
Otherwise, when the National Gallery decided to renovate the East Building, it chose not to make any changes to the gallery plan or to create new art spaces in what is has long been an unwieldy, art-averse Tennessee-pink-marble elephant. That was a mistake. The NGA had an obvious opportunity to try to fix one of America’s worst art museum buildings, and it passed.
Under the NGA’s plan for the “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art,” contemporary art will be cleaved from the rest of the NGA’s collection. (Apparently modern art will remain in the East Building.) For the NGA, separating contemporary art from the rest of the collection is the easy thing to do: The museum’s leadership has never had much enthusiasm for the stuff anyway. Would splitting the American collection, leaving some of it in the West Building and putting the rest in the Flagg Building have been a better idea? Probably not. Would moving an entire department, say French art, out of the West Building and into the Flagg Building have been a better idea? Maybe. It certainly would have been bolder, and putting Monet, van Gogh and Cezanne into the Corcoran would have guaranteed visitors in a way that an exhibition space called the “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art” likely will not. Would devoting the Flagg Building to photography, which would address an under-resourced NGA department while simultaneously respecting what may have been the Corcoran’s best collection area, have been a better idea? Possibly. [Image: Kerry James Marshall, Voyager, 1992. Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington.]
But America’s large art museums have reached the point when simple real-estate considerations require that they move off-campus. Before the Museum of Modern Art built its Yoshio Taniguchi-designed expansion, it considered instead building a satellite structure near John Jay College, on the west side of Manhattan. The Metropolitan will soon lease the Whitney’s Breuer Building. The Art Institute of Chicago has acknowledged that its next expansion, whenever it happens, will be away from its Michigan Ave. home. The National Gallery, which has even explored building offices or galleries under the National Mall, has known for many years that its growth would come away from its extant campus. So that the NGA is opening up galleries somewhere else in Washington is plenty fine. But whether the “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art” is the right way to do it remains an open question. (I hope that the NGA’s agreement with the Corcoran’s trustees allows it some conceptual and programmatic flexibility moving forward.)
Speaking of the “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art,” the promised “Corcoran Legacy Gallery” is one of the strangest ideas anyone putting together the George Washington University-National Gallery of Art takeover of the Corcoran has had. The idea is that a single gallery will somehow serve to honor or remember or preserve something related to the dearly departed Corcoran. (Or, in the NGA’s parlance, “Signature Corcoran works will rotate in the Legacy Gallery at the Corcoran.”) The likeliest reality is that the gallery will become an orphanage, a pastiche, a presentation of art removed from the context of its importance and period, and instead thrust into a kind of hanging cabinet of curiosities. Take the painting most identified with the Corcoran, Church’s Niagara. It should be surrounded by great American painting of the pre-Civil War era, where we can mediate on the hope the painting and the falls represented, the movement west the painting portended, the industrial potential that the falls signified and later enabled. Putting it in a “Legacy Gallery” with other particularly Corc-ish objects would place it in service to an artificial, administrative narrative rather than a meaningful historical context. (It sounds like the Washington CityPaper’s Kriston Capps is almost as befuddled by the idea as I am.) [Image: Anne Truitt, Insurrection, 1962. Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington.]
And then there’s the thorny question of pre-World War II American art. While the Corcoran’s programming and capabilities have dwindled in recent years, it has long had one of America’s most significant collections of American art, and with it the capacity to do meaningful research and exhibitions. So how will the NGA’s unexpected bounty impact the American field?
In recent years, many American art museums have broadened their definition of “American art” to include, say, Spanish colonial art. (Remember: When Thomas Cole was painting providential fantasies, the West was a Spanish dominion.) Over 20 years ago, the Dallas Museum of Art was perhaps the first museum to re-define American art as inclusive of all of the Americas, not just art descended from British colonization. In recent years museums as unalike as the stodgy MFA Boston and the dusty Philadelphia Museum of Art have pivoted strongly in that direction. But when the National Gallery re-opened its American galleries in the late 2000s, it doubled-down on the narrowest possible definition of American art, which at the NGA remains ‘the art of the Great Britain-oriented East, almost exclusively created by white men.’
This approach is wincingly evident in the NGA’s exhibition program. In the last decade the NGA’s American department has presented five major exhibitions: George Bellows (2012), George de Forest Brush (2008), Edward Hopper (2007), Charles Sheeler (2006), and Sanford R. Gifford (2004). That’s a lineup of known figures who made well-understood work. When it comes to American art, nowhere is as staunchly determined to to merely conform to and to confirm previous notions of patriarchical Anglo-Saxon competence than the National Gallery. It is not the place to look for revisionist histories or for investigations that might expand the canon or our ideas about American art. [Image: Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage, 1936. Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington.]
This may sound like a long-standing criticism laundered for a new day. But think of the present NGA-Corcoran situation like this: When an art museum ceases to exist, it’s not just its galleries and its collection that go away, it’s the capability to present exhibitions and to conduct scholarship into and related to that particular collection. A late institution is a voice that goes silent, and with it the opportunity for intensive research into the collection and the artists in it. In this case, the Corcoran’s scholarly potential will at worst be eliminated, and at best will be subsumed into an institution with the narrowest, most conservative scholarly focus in its field.
However, the assumption of the Corcoran collection and at least part of the old institution’s edifice provides the NGA with an opportunity, not just in American art but across the entire enterprise: To re-boot, to re-imagine itself as an institution and community resource. Large institutions, be they businesses or non-profits, are rarely afforded the opportunity to re-create themselves on the fly, to re-invent themselves for a new era. The demise of the Corcoran, the assumption of its collection and the occupation of at least some of its physical space affords the NGA with a wonderful and rare opportunity.
There are two ways in which the NGA could seize that opportunity: The Corcoran takeover provides the NGA with the momentum to launch a major, nine-figure capital campaign as a part of which the NGA could add the hundreds of thousands of square feet of galleries and offices that it so badly needs. (There is, as of yet, no indication that the NGA is interested in this.)
It also offers the NGA a chance to dramatically re-orient its relationship to Washington and to art. The museum could finally, belatedly, demonstrate that it cares about Washington, its home city. (Reminder: Washington isn’t exactly Peoria: Depending on how the count is tallied, Washington is as large as the fourth-biggest metro area in the United States.) For decades, especially under Powell, the NGA has oriented itself toward the National Mall and the city’s tourists rather than toward the city and the metropolitan area’s residents. The NGA engages in little-to-no significant community engagement. For example, the gallery’s programming is often held not in the evening, but on weekday afternoons, when no productive Washingtonian can attend. (A significant artist who recently gave a lecture at the NGA asked me, Why wasn’t anyone there? I know it’s the National Gallery of Art, but why did I bother flying down there for an audience of 23 people?)
Fixing the NGA’s almost non-existent relationship with Washington would require new voices and significant community-focused leadership, probably from people not currently at the museum. Today Washingtonians view the NGA through the prism of its presumed contempt for us. Take the photograph the NGA released on the occasion of its merger as an example, the photograph at the top of this post. It’s a tossed-off, camera-phone-style snapshot of the leaders of the three relevant institutions, the NGA, the Corcoran and George Washington University. It looks like a hastily-thrown-together afterthought. It can be read as a metaphor for the readiness of the National Gallery to embark on this new thing.
Ultimately, there are two ways the pending NGA takeover of the Corcoran could work: The Corcoran has the finest collection of Washington art. The NGA could place it in the right institution(s), and ensure that they have the resources to care for it, exhibit it and build our understanding of it. Then the NGA could take advantage of the Corcoran’s position in the community, its collection and the physical space newly available. It could become more creative and more innovative, especially by making the acquisition of the Corcoran a pivot point that creates a new future for the National Gallery itself. The NGA could expand its curatorial interests and foci, particularly in fields where the Corcoran is strong, such as in photography and American art. [Image: Gordon Parks, American Gothic, Washington, DC, 1942. Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington.]
The other way is that the NGA’s Corcoran takeover could work is more plodding. It could work because it has to, because there’s no other option for the Corcoran and its collection. The NGA could skirt most or all of its longstanding issues by simply depositing the overwhelming majority of the Corcoran’s art in storage for the foreseeable future. It could continue to research and organize exhibitions around the usual white 17th- and 18th-century male painters and the same group of photographers that the NGA has focused on for many years. (Perhaps there will be another exhibition of Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” or another street photography show, or another exhibition of a central European modernist, white guys all!) It will otherwise carry on as it long has under Powell’s leadership. The NGA will fail to be a part of the vibrant, booming city in which it is based.
I suspect I know which path the NGA will follow. It’s not the way I hope it will go.