The Redrawn Corcoran: a Question of Leadership

On Feb. 19, the long-troubled Corcoran announced a plan for George Washington University to take over its landmark 17th Street building and the Corcoran College of Art and Design, housed there and at the former Fillmore School on 35th Street in Georgetown.

The Corcoran art collection – minus works to be distributed to other museums – is to become the property of the National Gallery of Art, which will use the 17th Street galleries to show modern and contemporary art. (There is also talk of a “Corcoran Legacy Gallery,” where some of the museum’s most famous works will continue to be displayed at that location.)

In the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott called the plan “the end of the Corcoran and its final dismemberment.” But there is a good chance that some of what made the Corcoran a uniquely valuable Washington institution will live on. It is a question of leadership.

GWU President Steven Knapp was provost of Johns Hopkins University from 1996 to 2007, when the formerly independent Peabody Institute, a music conservatory of national importance, expanded as a constituent school of Johns Hopkins without giving up its distinct culture, faculty and student body.
National Gallery Director Earl Powell wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Thomas Cole, a major figure in 19th-century American art, in which the Corcoran collection is unsurpassed. Chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, Powell called the Corcoran’s exhibition spaces “arguably the most beautiful galleries of any museum in the United States” in a New York Times article about the proposed partnership.

Knapp and Powell are leaders who are likely to “get it,” at the helm of institutions with the resources to make full use of the Corcoran’s exceptionally fine building and collection. Whether they will work together to sustain the museum-school model and community engagement that helped to define the Corcoran’s identity – both locally and nationally – remains to be seen. We hope so.

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