Whither the Corcoran?

For a few months now, rumors and facts about the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the College of Art and Design have been swirling through the press, among bloggers, students, local artist and Corcoran members.

The historic Flagg buildings which houses the gallery has been put on the market. Board of trustees’ chairman Harry Hopper III acknowledged as much again in a letter sent to Corcoran members on July 20 and stated that no decision to actually sell the classic, much admired property had as yet been made.

The Corcoran scheduled two town hall community meetings in August, the first of which was held last week featuring a panel that included faculty member, and noted artist Bill Dunlap, performance artists and poet Holly Bass, Philip Brookman, the Corcoran’s chief curator, and Mark Schwartz, the Corcoran’s director of development and communications, who moderated the affair.

The auditorium at the Corcoran was about 75 percent full for the meeting, and most of the people there, many of them members or students, were plainly frustrated, angry and puzzled. Because Corcoran officials, including Hopper, had indicated that there was some consideration about actually selling the Flagg building and moving the Corcoran and presumably its collection to the suburbs, either in Virginia or Maryland, many people became alarmed. “You would be committing suicide if you do such a thing,” one member said. Dunlap, whose career was helped by having exhibitions of his work at the Corcoran, said that the Corcoran was losing touch with its institutional memory and the local arts community. “Where are the exhibitions of local artists today?” he asked. “An institution that loses its connection to the community is going to lose its soul.” Dunlap suggested that a serious attempt be made to get philanthropists and businesses to donate. “People like that can keep a sale like that from happening,” he said. “I mean, this isn’t just a business. It’s a treasure. It’s part of the heart and soul of the community. You can’t start selling things off like it’s some mergers and acquisition deal.”

Brookman suggested that the Corcoran might perhaps consider re-inventing itself. “I think this must become a modern art museum, full-service, with interaction from the community and with visitors, programs that encourage people to come and get a full experience.”

“It would be a tragedy if the Corcoran were to sell this building,” Bass said.

Schwartz assured people that the Corcoran would continue to hold its scheduled exhibitions through 2014. “No decision has been made on the sale. There is no imminent closing or sale or anything like that. “
Even so, there was a sense of urgency at the meeting, a sense of something imminent. It’s true that the Corcoran has been having its share of problems. It’s been under critical attack. Its planned renovation and extension with a Frank Gehry-designed project fell through, and it is now on its third director over a short period of time.

The fate of the Corcoran’s own large collection was not mentioned, save for assurances that selling it off was not being considered.

A search firm is now working on finding a replacement for temporary director Fred Bollerer, a banker who focused on the Corcoran’s financial issues. In fact, it’s the gallery that’s losing money while the school has been financially sound and successful.

“What we’re doing here is opening a community dialogue, we want to listen to what you have to say,” Schwartz said. “No decision on the sale has been made.”

Another community meeting, focusing specifically on the college of art and design, is scheduled for Aug. 23.

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