In February 2014, an art school’s decision made for some sensational headlines, such as The Washington Post‘s “The end of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.”
This is a worrisome development for many art historians and celebrants of American art and art schools. The Corcoran, founded in 1869 (though the school was established in 1890), is one of the oldest art institutions in the United States, and the only art college in Washington, DC, with its own dedicated building in the downtown area. Such a loss, for many cultural historians, is an indicator of American art’s lack of appreciation and value.
The “end of the Corcoran” is a misleading headline for the decisions made in February. The governance of a body called “The Corcoran” will virtually cease to exist. The collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art will be absorbed by the National Gallery of Art, and teaching responsibilities, as well as the beaux-arts building that has housed the Corcoran, will transfer to George Washington University. The difference in tone between The Washington Post‘s take on this development and the Corcoran’s statement is sharp; one simply has to compare the use of the words “loss” and “collaboration” in describing the same event to see the negativity from The Washington Post.
So, the building and most of the legacy of the Corcoran will be transferred to other parties. Does this mean that the original mission of the Corcoran will be lost, too? I want to argue that no, it does not. The founding mission of the Corcoran was simple: “Dedicated to Art and Encouraging American Genius.” GWU and NGA will carry on the legacy, and the name of the Corcoran will remain on the 1897 building and over a small “legacy” collection that showcases some of the important works closely associated with the school and museum.
Missions of universities can perpetuate beyond the physical existence; they are the legacy left behind after the university ceases to exist. The importance of American art, both in creation and celebration, to the Corcoran permeates American culture. Anything that carries the Corcoran name carries that same legacy, thus perpetuating the mission beyond the closing of a college.