Corcoran Set for George Washington and National Gallery Takeover

The Guardian, May 16, 2014

One of the oldest museums in the US, known for its daring contemporary art exhibitions next to the White House and its financial troubles, is being taken over by two larger institutions and will soon close for renovations.

Under an agreement signed on Thursday, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its College of Art and Design will be taken over by George Washington University and the federally funded National Gallery of Art.

The three sides agreed the Corcoran will close around 1 October, for an undetermined amount of time. When it reopens, it will offer free admission like the National Gallery's other buildings on the National Mall.

The takeover agreement brings an end to years of uncertainty for the Corcoran. At one point its board considered selling the historic Beaux-Arts building that needs at least $100m in renovations. Last year, the museum pursued a partnership with the University of Maryland that fell apart.

Peggy Loar, the Corcoran's interim director and president, said the new arrangement saves the collection and the museum-based college.

"I think there's a euphoria that we have a wonderful solution here," she said. "The one thing we need to work at is to maintain that synergy between the collections and curators along with the faculty and the students."

The bulk of the Corcoran's 17,000 artworks will be brought into the National Gallery's collection, keeping them available to the public. National Gallery director Earl A Powell III said the Corcoran's American and modern art collections complement and enhance the existing holdings.

"You put the two together and you get one of the greatest, if not the greatest, collection of that art in this country," he said.

While the Corcoran name will be preserved, the museum will have less than half its current gallery space and more space devoted to the art school.

"Face it: the Corcoran isn't going to be the old Corcoran. It is going to be the new National Gallery," Powell said. "I think we will hope to kind of push edges here."

Artworks that may duplicate current holdings will be distributed to other museums with a preference to those in Washington. But all sides agreed no artworks will be sold.

"The reason it is such a no-no to sell collections is where do you stop?" Loar said. "We wouldn't have a collection left."

George Washington University will take on the bulk of the financial obligations for renovating the building, and the National Gallery will pay for all exhibition programmes and museum operations.

A first phase of renovations is expected to cost $25m, university officials said. Initial costs will be covered by $35m transferred from the Corcoran to the university and the sale of a separate Corcoran building. The university will raise funds for further renovations, said George Washington president Steven Knapp.

The Corcoran College, which enrolls about 450 students this year and expects 580 next year, will be gradually integrated into the university. Some programs could be merged with existing arts programmes or brought under the Corcoran College umbrella, Knapp said.

"It will make our university more of a hub for the arts," he said.

The Corcoran was founded in 1869 with a mission dedicated to art and "encouraging American genius". At one time, William Wilson Corcoran sat on George Washington University's board. Now the school will help protect his legacy.

"I think it's an opportunity for our nation's capital, frankly," Knapp said, "because it enables us to maintain the Corcoran legacy and the Corcoran collections that might otherwise have been dispersed."

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