The Art of the Steal: It’s Curtains for Corcoran

Joan Mitchell.American.Salut Tom

At The Corcoran: Salut Tom by Joan Mitchell. Image courtesy of

We are a city of serious art lovers. We’ve got tons of galleries at our fingertips, and our collections are respected internationally. So it is fitting that DC is the location of one of the oldest private art institutions in the county: The Corcoran Gallery of Art. Only, not for much longer.

As you’ve probably read, The Corcoran Gallery of Art has been plagued by financial woes, leadership problems and an unresolved identity crisis for years. After much thought, and probably a bit of desperation, the institution decided to disband, giving the National Gallery of Art first dibs on its 17,000 piece collection (worth an estimated $2 b-b-billion), while the 17th Street building and the Corcoran College of Art +Design will be absorbed by George Washington University. As The Corcoran is a non-profit under founder William Wilson Corcoran’s original charter, from 1869, the split needed court approval. That approval was granted on August 18th.

At The Corcoran: Ground Swell by Edward Hopper. Image courtesy of

I’m sure this was not what Mr. Corcoran intended. He donated his own art collection, the grounds, a building and a $1 million endowment to The Corcoran’s founding. That’s a fortune now, and it really was then. For a while, The Corcoran flourished at its original 17th Street and Pennsylvania location, in what is now the Renwick Museum. So much so that in 1897 the Corcoran expanded to a Beau Arts building, designed by Ernest Flagg specifically for the institute. The move was an event to be celebrated, and even President Cleveland was in attendance at the inauguration of the new building.

Of course, The Corcoran has taken many missteps since then, like in 1989 when the board of directors decided against showing a solo show of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs because they disagreed with it’s “homoerotic” and “violent” content. Even in death, the gallery will never live that one down.

Corcoran Gallery of Art Evans 1979.101.7

At The Corcoran: Penny Picture Display, Savannah by Walker Evans. Image courtesy of

But The Corcoran can also claim many shining moments, like the recent show for Oregonian abstract expressionist Richard Diebenkorn, or the show of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic body of work, in 2010. The museum has also amassed an incredible permanent collection of works from some of the world’s most beloved artists, including Edgar Degas, Thomas Gainsborough, John Singer Sargent, Joan Mitchell, Gene Davis, Claude Monet, Rembrandt Peale, Eugène Delacroix, Pablo Picasso, Edward Hopper and Willem de Kooning.

Most Washingtonian’s have a relationship with The Corcoran. There, I’ve gone on dates, explored the corridors with my cousins, seen professors show work and spent afternoons exploring alone. My sister was also one of thousands of students who took unforgettable classes at The Corcoran College of Art + Design.

ZwelethuMthethwa.SouthAfrican.Untitled.Father and Son

At The Corcoran: Untitled (Father and Son) by Zwelethu Mthethwa. Image courtesy of

The Corcoran is a place that, not matter its troubles, always felt permanent. As we prepare to say goodbye, I tip my hat to everyone who honored Mr. Corcoran’s vision by building a gallery “dedicated to art and used solely for the purpose of encouraging the American genius.”

On October 1st, The Corcoran gallery will close. Starting last week and until that final day, you can visit The Corcoran for free (it previously cost $10 per person). It is located at 500 17th Street NW and is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00am to 5:00pm. Visit The Corcoran online to preview current exhibitions.


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