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Arts: Washington D.C. may lose great art museum

Arts: Washington D.C. may lose great art museum

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Washington, D.C., is losing one of its great art museums. The Corcoran Gallery of Art was the first art museum in the nation’s capital and one of the oldest in the country. But if the current plan comes to fruition, it will cease to exist by this summer.

The museum was the idea of banker William Corcoran, whose initial plan to construct a building so the public could view his art collection was put on hold by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. It finally opened to the public in 1874. The museum added an art school in 1890 and in 1897 moved into its current building, just across 17th Street from the White House.

Close proximity to the White House was not an accident. Corcoran believed that art could shape the morals of the nation’s political leaders, and he wanted the rest of the world to see that Americans — not just Europeans— were capable of creating great works of art.

But these days it’s the National Gallery of Art that most people think of when they want to see great art in Washington. Much to its advantage, the NGA is right on the Mall in the middle of all the tourist traffic. One could wind up there by accident, searching for, say, the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, and decide to take in a Rembrandt or two. One never comes across the Corcoran by accident.

And there were larger problems: The cancellation of a controversial exhibit alienated some of its backers; soaring facility expenses; an aborted plan to expand the museum with a high-profile architect; then a plan to move the gallery out of D.C. (A complete catalog of the ills would require three of these columns.)

Last month, the trustees finally voted to turn over the Corcoran School of Art and the building itself to George Washington University.

The National Gallery of Art will move in to take control of the pieces in the Corcoran’s collection. Some it will keep; the future of the rest is unclear. Pieces could wind up all over the country.

Eric Gibson of the Wall Street Journal calls the whole sorry affair “mismanagement on a near epic scale,” but notes that the problem is not just with the Corcoran and its trustees, but one faced by nonprofit boards everywhere. There’s a crisis in nonprofit governance, he says, “where boards embark on polices that go against — and even imperil — the mission of the institution they are charged to oversee and protect.”

One retired museum director told Gibson that the hardest part of his job had been to teach board members who had ties to the business world that a museum was not a business in the sense that they understood the term. A former longtime trustee of the Whitney Museum wrote that problems emerged in the 1970s and ’80s when many new board members began to be more interested in using the museum for their social and business purposes, rather than understanding themselves as caretakers of a cultural legacy.

Arts boards have a very tough job. They’re under constant pressure to make their institutions bigger and better, and to do things that will garner splashy headlines. Against this they often have to contend with the pressures of shrinking budgets. Recently, for example, the Art Center of Waco board was forced to cut the center’s two full-time positions because of declining revenue.

Nothing would make things easier for trustees more than a greater public appreciation of the arts. But sadly, that’s beyond the power of any board.

David A. Smith, a Baylor University senior lecturer in history and a Cultural Arts of Waco board member, can be reached at

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