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Breaking Up Corcoran Gallery Takes More Time Than Expected


It's spring, tourism season here in the nation's capital and we're seeing plenty of visitors stream in. The tour books might steer them to the White House, the Capitol, the Smithsonian museums. Unless you're an art enthusiast, you might not even know about the Corcoran Gallery of Art just a couple blocks from the White House. It's actually one of the oldest art museums in the country and soon it will cease to exist, sort of.

It's being taken over by a nearby university and another gallery. NPR's Elizabeth Blair looks at how a cherished institution lost control of its future.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The Corcoran has always had a lot going for it, except for a clear identity. Is it a place to see historic artworks or adventurous new work, a national treasure or a hub for local artists, a school, a museum? Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott says all of the above.

PHILIP KENNICOTT: It's a very quirky institution and it's very much tied to the local arts community.

BLAIR: Quirky and local. Sounds good, says Peggy Loar, the Corcoran's interim director.

PEGGY LOAR: But that hasn't paid the bills.

BLAIR: And the bills are steep, and fundraising, she says, has not kept pace, partly because they're in Washington, D.C. When the Corcoran goes looking for money, it's up against major federally funded institutions like The Smithsonian and The National Gallery of Art. The Corcoran charges a $10 admission fee. Its neighbors on The Mall are free.

LOAR: Living in the shadow, albeit the beautiful shadow, of all these amazing museums in Washington have meant that it's difficult, because when the public visits during the summer, when people come from all over the country, they're going to go to the free museums first. And so that has always been a problem for the Corcoran, and from the earliest days.

BLAIR: And the Corcoran was early. It was established in 1869, just before the Metropolitan in New York and well before The National Gallery in D.C. Art lover William Wilson Corcoran was born in Washington. He was a banker and a philanthropist who wanted to share his growing collection with the public. Today, one of the Corcoran's most valuable assets is its building, a marble Beaux Arts-style structure with a stunning skylit atrium with 40-foot-high ceilings.

DAVID LEVY: It has one of the greatest museum buildings in the world.

BLAIR: David Levy was the Corcoran's director for 14 years, beginning in the 1990s. He says he's worried about the fate of the building because it needs major renovations.

LEVY: The minute you start touching that building, which is to get the infrastructure of that building straightened out, there will be major ADA problems, Americans with Disabilities Act problems, because that building was built at a time when nobody thought about those things.

BLAIR: The cost of the repairs has been estimated at over $100 million. But that is not the only problem the Corcoran has faced.

LOAR: The model of the Corcoran was no longer sustainable. One of the issues is the fact that it is both a museum and a college.

BLAIR: Now, you would think just the opposite, that museum curators would want the next generation of artists under the same roof. But many art schools around the U.S. have split off from the museums to which they were originally linked. David Levy says that's because as the two organizations grow, there's a turf war that goes on.

LEVY: One of the things about a museum is, if it's doing its job, it will be acquiring more and more and more art. It will require more and more and more space. Meantime, it's got this school with these scruffy kids wandering around downstairs or somewhere in part of the building and the trustees are much more enamored with the black tie openings and all the glitz around the art than the art school, for the most part, and so the art school tends to lose out in the real estate war.

BLAIR: So after years of trying to tackle mounting debt and keep the museum and school together, the Corcoran finally made an agreement that will break them up. Nearby George Washington University will take over the art school. GW will own the building and pay for its renovations. The collection will become the property of The National Gallery of Art. Their curators will decide what to present in the Corcoran building.

The NGA says no art will be sold, admission will be free. The Corcoran name will remain, but Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott says it won't be the same.

KENNICOTT: I think things will be a little more professional, a little more institutional, probably a little more polished and maybe a lot less exciting in the ways that the Corcoran used to manage to whip up.

BLAIR: Others are relieved that this new deal means the building will remain a museum and that The National Gallery's curators are stepping in.

LOU STOVALL: Hooray. Hooray. I was so excited.

BLAIR: Washington-based artist Lou Stovall has had shows at the Corcoran.

STOVALL: Here's an opportunity with The National Gallery hopefully taking the major paintings of the Corcoran, paintings that America has really not seen very much of.

BLAIR: Meantime, students at the Corcoran College of Art and Design are waiting to hear more details on what this means for them.

LAURA THOMAS: It's an interesting time right now to be at the Corcoran.

BLAIR: Laura Thomas came to D.C. from California to study at the Corcoran. In that stunning atrium she and other students are using colored pencils to create a huge new installation mounted on the wall.

THOMAS: I like drawing on the walls. I feel like if it's the last thing I can do at the Corcoran, I will draw on the walls.

BLAIR: The Corcoran, The National Gallery of Art and George Washington University were hoping to make the details of the takeover public this week, but it turns out breaking up an institution as old and diverse as the Corcoran is taking more time than they expected. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.