Corcoran Gallery of Art
|Location||500 17th St., NW|
Washington, D.C., United States
|Architectural style||Beaux Arts|
|NRHP reference #||71000997|
|Added to NRHP||May 6, 1971|
|Designated NHL||April 27, 1992|
The Corcoran School, founded in 1878, hosts exhibitions by its students and visiting artists and offers degrees in Fine Art, Photojournalism, Interaction Design, Interior Architecture, etc. Prior to the Gallery's closing, it was one of the oldest privately supported cultural institutions in the United States. Starting in 1890, a museum school, later known as the Corcoran College of Art + Design, co-existed with the gallery. The museum's main focus was American art. In 2014, after decades of financial problems and mismanagement, the Corcoran was dissolved by court order. A new non-profit was established and the Corcoran's $2 billion, 17,000 piece art collection was given away for free to the National Gallery of Art (NGA). What works the NGA did not accession were donated to cultural institutions throughout Washington, D.C. and across the United States. The Corcoran School of Art and Design was given to George Washington University (GWU) along with the $200 million historic 17th Street building and $50 million.
When the gallery was founded in 1869 by William Wilson Corcoran, the cofounder of Riggs Bank, it was one of the first fine art galleries in the country. Corcoran established the gallery, supported with an endowment, "for the perpetual establishment and encouragement of the Fine Arts." While an independent institution, the Corcoran was the oldest and largest non-federal art museum in the District of Columbia. Its mission was "dedicated to art and used solely for the purpose of encouraging the American genius."
The Corcoran Gallery of Art was originally located at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, in the building that now houses the Renwick Gallery. Construction of that building started before the Civil War. The building, near completion, was used by the government as a warehouse during the Civil War. It was finally completed in 1874 and the gallery opened to the public.
By 1897, the Corcoran Gallery collection outgrew the space of its original building. A new building was constructed, designed by Ernest Flagg in a Beaux-Arts style. The 135,000 square feet (12,500 m²) building was built to house an expanded Corcoran collection in addition to the nascent school, which had been formally founded in 1890. The new building features a pair of bronze statues, the Canova Lions, at its entrance. These lions were purchased at auction by the Corcoran Gallery in 1888 and placed in front of the museum at its original location. The iconic bronze castings were moved to their current location in 1897 when the museum moved to its current building at 17th Street and New York Avenue.
In 1928, the art collection of former Senator William A. Clark joined the Corcoran in a new wing designed by Charles Adam Platt, and inaugurated by President Calvin Coolidge. For decades, the Corcoran examined the possibility of adding on a final wing which would complete the campus footprint. These plans abruptly ended in 2005 after a Frank O. Gehry -designed wing was scrapped due to lack of funding, and the remainder of the available property was sold to a private developer.
Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the gallery continued to display its main collection from Corcoran, Clark, and a few select major donors. At its peak, the museum owned a significant collection including work from Rembrandt Peale, Eugène Delacroix, Edgar Degas, Thomas Gainsborough, John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet, Mariano Fortuny, Pablo Picasso, Edward Hopper, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Gene Davis, and many others. Space was always a challenge - only a small percentage of the gallery's permanent collection was able to be displayed in the confines of the 17th Street gallery, which shared its roughly 140,000 square feet with the art school.
In 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art had agreed to host a traveling solo exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe's works. Mapplethorpe decided to show a new series that he had explored shortly before his death, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment curated by Janet Kardon of the Institute of Contemporary Art. Several Trustees of the Corcoran and U.S. Representatives Dick Armey (TX) and Jesse Helms (NC) were horrified when the works were revealed to them, and the museum director, Christina Orr-Cahall succumbed to pressure and cancelled the exhibit, which had already been announced to its members through an exhibition preview invitation. The Coalition of Washington Artists organized a demonstration to protest the Corcoran Gallery's cancellation of the exhibit. An estimated 700 people attended the demonstration.
In June 1989, pop artist Lowell Blair Nesbitt became involved in the controversy over Mapplethorpe's work. It was at this time that Nesbitt, a long-time friend of Mapplethorpe, revealed that he had a $1.5 million bequest to the museum in his will. Nesbitt publicly promised that if the museum refused to host the exhibition he would revoke his bequest. The Corcoran refused and Nesbitt bequeathed the money to the Phillips Collection instead.
After the Corcoran cancelled the Mapplethorpe exhibition, the underwriters of the exhibition went to the nonprofit Washington Project for the Arts, which showed the controversial images in its own space from July 21 to August 13, 1989, to large crowds. The 1990 NEA Appropriations Bill included language against "obscene" work.
In its final years, the museum and its affiliated art and design college Corcoran School of the Arts and Design together had a staff of about 140 and an operating budget of about $24 million. Revenue came from grants and contributions, admissions fees, tuition, membership dues, gift shop and restaurant sales, and an endowment worth around $30 million. In February 2001, two AOL executives (Robert W. Pittman and Barry Schuler) and their wives donated $30 million to the museum, its largest single donation since its founding.
In 2014, following decades of financial problems, the Corcoran Trustees chose to break the founder's deed of trust by going to court to have the Corcoran dissolved. Following a court order dissolving the city's oldest independent museum, the trustees gave the former college of art and design, the $200 million Beaux Arts building, and $50 million to George Washington University to renovate the facility and operate the school programs. The 17,000 piece art collection worth $2 billion was donated to the National Gallery of Art. In the beginning of 2018, the director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design officially disclosed plans for the National Gallery of Art to bring art back to the second floor of the Flagg building.
Flagg also designed the interior of the building. When one enters the building's front doors on 17th Street, they first enter the 170 ft × 50 ft atrium. The vast space, separated into three connected sections, consists of forty limestone columns and twin skylights (to light the intended display of sculptures). The Beaux-Arts-inspired room rises two interior stories and has housed exhibit space and other uses.
Directly across the atrium from the front entrance stands the grand staircase, leading to the second floor. Low rise stairs, sixteen feet wide, are watched over by six statues on pedestals atop marble platforms, and lead to a landing halfway to the second floor. Hold onto the brass-topped railing for balance. From the grand staircase, one can access the rotunda and the second story level of the atrium, including a bridge that heads across the atrium back towards the direction of the front door. Gallery space exists throughout.
Back on the first floor, three galleries lead from the atrium (originally there were seven). The second floor originally had eight galleries. The rotunda came later, designed by Charles Platt in 1925. Forty eight feet wide, the room's domed ceiling culminates in an oculus skylight. Reminiscent of the Pantheon, the space offers an exquisite entry to the building's Clark Wing. An observer would access a marble-floored, square, dark staircase hall with wood panels to reach the Clark Wing galleries.
At the northern end of the building, the Hemicycle's unusual shape fills the angle created by New York Avenue and 17th Street. The space is the auditorium, being 67 ft × 45 ft with a 300-person capacity. The Salon Doré appears on the building's opposite side. Also referred to as the "French Room," it displays intricate French decorations; it was designed in the early 1700s by Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin and was moved from Paris to the United States sometime before 1904.
In 2015, preservationists added the interior portions of the Corcoran Gallery to the National Register of Historic Places (the exterior had been listed in 1971). The interior nomination includes the grand staircase, atrium, rotunda, gallery, and other notable spaces.