Boy, was that close! The capital’s oldest art museum, and one of the oldest in America, has been on the brink of dying for the last few years, as money trouble, bad luck, the recession, and who knows what else sent the art gallery and its college on a downward spiral. In April 2014, just as it seemed the gallery was gasping its last breath, the cavalry arrived, in the form of the Corcoran’s neighbor, the George Washington University, and the capital’s grand dame of an art museum, the National Gallery of Art. Together, the three entities are cobbling out a collaboration that will keep the Corcoran in its historic building, renovate the interior for use by the National Gallery as a showcase for modern and contemporary art, and turn care of the building as well as the ownership of the Corcoran College of Art + Design over to the George Washington University.
This is a work in progress, so it’s hard to say exactly what you will see when you visit, or if the museum will even be open, since renovations are in the mix, but at least we know this: The Corcoran collection survives and it survives in place, inside the elegant Beaux Arts building, located across the street from the White House.
Established in 1869 and opened to the public in 1874, the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s world-renowned collection of American art created between 1718 and 1945 numbers more than 17,000 works. Rembrandt Peale, George Bellows, and John Singer Sargent are among the many notables. The Corcoran’s holdings also include post-1945 American artists, such as Louise Nevelson and Andy Warhol; artists associated with the “Washington Color School,” including Sam Gilliam and Kenneth Noland; and the assorted European treasures of Delft porcelain, Impressionist paintings, and a Louis XVI ornately gilded and paneled salon, transported untouched from Paris, and more.
“Not a single work of art will be sold,” states a communiqué from the press office. Nor will the newly constituted Corcoran’s mission change from its original one of being “dedicated to art and encouraging American genius.”
Nevertheless, it’s unclear what percent of the collection will be on view. The National Gallery, whose space for modern and contemporary art exhibits, the East Wing, is under renovation until 2017, will likely love to hang its sidelined works in these new digs. But the National Gallery has stated that it does plan to display selections from the Corcoran’s collection in an exhibit space within the building that will be called the “Corcoran Legacy Gallery.”
Will the Corcoran’s better-than-average cafe (operated by Equinox chef Todd Gray, who also creates the menu) make the cut in the new Corcoran? Hope so! And that goes for its small but fine gift shop, too.
Call or check the website for the latest information about hours and admission.