Alternative Focus #9: Private Museum/University Partnerships

“A Trend in the Washington Artworld and its Implications: How Will New Private Museum/University Partnerships Impact the Public Presentation of Art?”

Backstory: Some Issues

What’s in a “partnership”? This is the question to be asked here, given the several instances in which private art museums in this city have formed, are forming, or expect to shortly be forming such relationships with local universities at the moment. This mini-trend seems to warrant consideration particularly given that most of the other art museums in Washington are operated by the Smithsonian Institutions or federally funded; and it can be argued that the former private entities have instead more to do with the idiosyncratic “local” character of D.C. as a city, with their situations especially important to the self-definition of its own visual-cultural scene versus its “role” as U.S. capital.

That such private art museum (or other cultural institution)/university “partnerships” have already been formed elsewhere means precedents do exist: the musical rather than artistic Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins, the Hammer Museum/UCLA, MoCA in LA/USC (the private University of Southern California, still only an acknowledged rumor), the Wolfsonian Museum/Florida International University, the John and Mable Ringling Museum/University of Southern Florida and the Clark Art Institute/Williams College (their M.A. Program in Art History in library attached to museum).[1] Among these parallels, it can be observed the larger educational institution not-infrequently seems to absorb or dominate the smaller, then-subordinate art institution as a unit within themselves.

Details regarding one of the Californian examples can be cited by way of illustration: L.A.’s Armand Hammer Museum opened in Nov. 1990 but its patron died three weeks later, with the building incomplete, and negotiations with UCLA were opened by the museum in 1992, the terms of which were finalized in 1994. In this case the school’s holdings, and its existing Wight Gallery as well as Grunwald Drawings Center (along with existing staffs) were relocated to the Hammer.[2] As the Hammer’s website puts it, UCLA “assume[d] the management and operations of the institution;” and current Director Ann Philbin describes the Museum as “the entry through which the general public can gain access to the diverse riches of the University community” (a subsidiary “gateway” function?).

Yet it is most recent developments here in Washington which may most qualify to be called a virtual business-parlance “takeover,” hence related trends elsewhere in the country might presage what lies ahead for private art museums in general.

While, granted, the underlying cause of these “partnerships” may be largely financial, so that their formation should be here viewed as or presupposed to be inherently positive developments because resulting in these private art museums’ economic survival (as well as providing the universities in question with a larger cultural “footprint” or profile in a city dominated by politics). But obviously the crucial issues raised are things like: to what extent the museums’ nature, programming, and/or crucial staffing are determined by which entity; how much if at all the charters or founding statutes of the art institutions are being altered; what kind of audience is now being projected for their activities; and who or which can be said to most benefit from the resulting dyadic combinations?

This in-the-process-of-being-defined nature is how such cases differ from those of existing university or college art galleries or museums (with major ones including the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard, the Oberlin and the Williams College Art Museums, the Grey Art Gallery at NYU, and the Yale University Art Gallery), which were already from their inception subsumed into academic structures and even to some extent thought of as “teaching museums.” But with these new relationships where both parties are separate non-profit organizations coming together, part of the question would seem to be what business terms apply or economic structures are in play: ranging from the equal, neutral “partnership” employed by spokespeople for these Washington entities, to say a more-weighted “merger” label, indicating projected dominance of one side.[3]

Certainly it can be said these only-seemingly mundane institutional shifts represent the end of an older model and onset of a new socio-economic era on some level: the passing of a late 19th- or early 20th-century individual-patronage structure and the transition to a corporatist business-style approach. Is it now only by thus reorganizing into multi-partite cultural entities that private institutions devoted to the public exhibition of art will be able to survive into the future, by literally being absorbed into academia as their appropriate context? To test these ideas out, let us shift gears to examine the three instances in D.C. where this private museum/university “partnership” has already been, is in the process of being formed, and was in its negotiating stages. First is the Katzen Center and American University, second is the Textile Museum and George Washington University, and third was the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the University of Maryland (until it was just dismantled by the National Gallery of Art and GW).

Existing: Katzen Art Center/American University

In the case of our first example, as one can tell from its being called the American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center, the structure linking museum and university is somewhat different. There is what might be termed a symbiotic relationship between the entities involved: with the donor of the building (which opened in 2005), the late Dr. Cyrus Katzen, having been insistent about his patronage involving the creation of an art museum.[4] Therefore the unique building on Ward Circle, designed by Steve Kleinrock of Einhorn Jaffee Associates in Atlanta, although it contains facilities for the other arts and faculty offices as well as student studios, is where the University moved its own visual arts exhibition space from the much smaller preceding Watkins Art Gallery.[5]

Katzen Art Center at American University, Ward Circle NW, opened 2005; architect Steven Kleinrock of Einhorn, Yaffee, Prescott Associates, Atlanta. Courtesy of American University Museum.

That latter structure originally housing the Art Department (itself important in the development of Washington’s art history) and a gallery, as the American University Museum’s Director Jack Rasmussen explains, was named for the art instructor C. Law Watkins: who returned along with the Studio Art Department from being temporarily in space provided it by Duncan Phillips  (founder of the Phillips Collection) during WWII, when the Red Cross moved into Hearst Hall where it had previously been located. Watkins had a different sense of what the activity of creating art had to do with than the gentlemanly past-time of Phillips, with one result being the establishment of the first university graduate Studio Art MFA program at AU, focused rather on the training of artists as professionals. However, present bureaucratic arrangements have the American University Museum (what people generally now call “the Katzen”) existing as its own separate academic department which reports directly to the school’s Dean—although programming input and suggestions are regularly solicited from the Studio and Art History as well as diverse other faculties within the University.

Therefore the above-employed “symbiotic” adjective used to characterize this particular private museum/university “partnership”: operating in a building constructed by and left with a small endowment by its collector-donor, AU provides a majority of the Museum’s operating budget (approximately 30% of the costs of putting on shows must be raised by its own staff) while profiting in terms of profile within the city’s and even the country’s cultural landscape, the latter due to its being located in the nation’s capital. This Museum, along with the multi-arts center it occupies, can be said in legal terms to be “embedded” in the University; and its programming can be observed to both reflect and project its nature as an academic institution.[6] The latter has evolved to include a student enrollment from 140 different countries (Rasmussen works frequently with embassies and shows much art from abroad), and has also come to possess a quite liberal political orientation (the Museum’s Director pointing out he has in only one instance been denied funding for a show), shared by the Katzen’s agenda.

Cyrus Katzen (1918-2009) in American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center he funded, 2005. Courtesy of American University Museum.

But what about Katzen himself? Considering donors and patronage with respect to visual arts institutions makes for a good transition to our next sub-sections, looking at the two other cases in Washington where private museums are or were to “partner” with universities. His appears to have been a remarkably diverse and successful career-path (amazing along the lines of say, a Joseph Hirshhorn): from Georgetown University-graduate dentist and patenter of an x-ray film developer subsequently adapted by the Navy for monitoring submarine soldiers’ exposure to radiation, to real estate developer in Northern Virginia making Bailey’s Crossroads and Rosslyn into business centers, to founder of banks (initially as a kind of “hobby” making it possible to assist others in difficult financial situations, but ending up backing the investors who built Crystal City). All along the way, accompanied by first wife Sylvia and his second Myrtle (an artist), beginning in the 1950s, Katzen collected Modern and Contemporary art, both fine and decorative, producing an agglomeration its compiler acknowledged as “very eclectic” but including many major names of 19th- and 20th-century art.[7]

While the building ultimately intended to house Katzen’s holdings did not possess sufficient space to have his collection, or even parts of it, on permanent display, its exhibition program (conceived in the spirit of a Kunsthalle or free constantly- changing exhibition space by its Director[8]) receives at least 35,000 visitors a year. Further, as architecture critic Ben Forgey’s article in The Washington Post when the building opened, commenting on its rounded profile, pointed out: “This is the image the building will be remembered by. It faces the circle from the northeast, so thousands of motorists heading toward the Maryland line will see its big curves unforgettably framed by their windshields every day…”[9] In a city ever-more-crowded by commuters, truly a smart move. As Katzen concludes his self-published, legitimately triumphant autobiography: “You hear what I’m saying!”[10]

Happening: Textile Museum/George Washington University

Had you ever imagined Washington’s Textile Museum without its signature S Street building, set as it was among embassies and upscale townhouses above Dupont Circle? Well, in case you have not yet heard, the TM has already pulled up stakes and is in the process of “transitioning” to a new architectural home located on George Washington University’s Foggy Bottom campus, having bid adieu to its previous venue with a reception entitled “A Night to Remember” on Oct. 11, 2013. There, braving the elegant garden’s soggy ground where tents had been pitched, with tours and reminiscences as well as hors-d’oeuvres and video-screens, were the Museum’s Friends, supporters and guests, whose own opinions about the move seemed mixed about 50/50: on the one hand, taking a stance supporting its evolution and change in the face of D.C.’s famous stuffy cultural traditionalism; and on the other, fearing perhaps the TM could potentially lose its former base while failing to attract a demographically different audience. A precedent mentioned was the theatrical one of Arena Stage’s transformation.[11]

Artist’s rendering of new GW Museum exterior as seen from 21st Street NW, image courtesy of MFM Design (renderings are concept only).

With the old building already closed as an exhibition space and the new one (which will be the 35,000-square-foot George Washington University Museum on 21st at G Street, NW) not yet completed,[12] a series of interim events and collaborations meanwhile constitutes the fabric (as it were) connecting the institution’s past with its future. These have so far included: Rug & Textile Appreciation Mornings, a Lunchtime Lecture at Dumbarton Oaks, a behind-the-scenes viewing of the National Museum of American History’s related material, and a curatorial tour of a National Museum of Women in the Arts quilts show.[13] In addition to this main GWU Museum, in which exhibitions composed from the Textile Museum’s holdings will be mounted as well as works from the University’s permanent collection and Albert H. Small Washingtoniana trove, a second structure (the “historical Woodhull House”) nearby is also being renovated—with the whole complex to include research, study, library and office space. Finally, in addition and importantly given the fragile nature of many-centuries-old textiles, GW is now building a conservation center located at its Virginia Science and Technology Campus in Ashburn, to “facilitate… study and care” of all of these.

Spearheading this new multi-facetted museological endeavor is the (since last summer) new Director of the GW Museum and Textile Museum, John Wetenhall: who is prepared for his central coordinating position by a Ph.D. in Art History from Stanford and an M.B.A. from Vanderbilt University, as well as having served in administrative positions at the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, and the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville.[14] But perhaps most importantly, Wetenhall has already orchestrated an analogous institutional transplant: the relocation of the Ringling Museum to Florida State University, another independent private art museum’s “transition” (as the parlance goes) to an existing academic context. Thus like the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s present Interim Director, Peggy Loar, who similarly pulled off the (again, the appropriate verbs to use are uncertain, as will be discussed below) incorporation of the Wolfsonian Museum into Florida International University, this is someone who has previously succeeded at the task at hand: a “partnership.” The resulting TM/GW composite will retain the former’s current curatorial crew and perhaps add to it, Wetenhall will teach Museum Studies and Head Curator Sumru Krody has already taught textiles courses to GW students, and the whole will open to a public in Fall 2014. It does then seem fair to ask, which public?

GW External Affairs spokesperson Angela Olson indicated in an Aug. 27, 2013 interview that its new museum sought to appeal to a younger demographic, which would be in keeping with both relocation to a university campus and general trends in D.C.’s population makeup—increasingly lower in age and higher in income. The Eastern Hemisphere Collections Curator at the Textile Museum, Lee Talbot, alluded to a similar goal when guiding one of the tours of the former residence of the George Hewitt Myers family, the part used as office space when the museum was housed in the S Street manse. Talbot spoke of an introductory installation of selections from the collection at the new GW venue which would begin with a tee-shirt, making it clear to earlier-generation viewers how fabrics even now as then involve identity, social status and communication. Computer simulations of the double-story room to be included in the GW space, which will of course allow for more dramatic display possibilities, suggest why the Textile Museum (with its previously cramped exhibition areas) was interested; and an article about hands-on seminars for GW students completes the picture.[15]

George Hewitt Myers (1875-1957). Photo courtesy of The Textile Museum.

So we have gained a sense of what potentially lies ahead, from the point of view of both institutional participants in this TM/GW “partnership” (with what the University gains for its large investment perhaps less clear), within this “new museum model” powered by the “entrepreneurial approach” and “vision” of its Director.[16] Yet what about what already lies behind: out of which this almost 100-year-old Washington institution grew, characterized by the kind of monied private connoisseurship and sense of public cultural responsibility that gave rise to so many independent American art museums? In the case of G.W. Myers’ evolving infatuation with textiles, though offering a great deal of information the Museum’s website does not offer many clues about its central figure’s psychological motivations, despite characterizing them as an “obsession.” Moving from carpeting his residence at Yale, where Myers studied Forestry, 13 years after his graduation and establishment in Kalorama Heights, he had become “a serious collector… acquiring rugs and textiles from dealers in the U.S. and Europe.”[17] He became increasingly preoccupied with their “meaning,” shifting his attention to fostering knowledge about them, and thus founding the Museum in 1925.

This kind of evolutionary historical narrative emphasizes the personal roots and individual character of such an institution, linked with a particular phase in this country’s cultural history, to which Myers came somewhat late and apparently better financially endowed to begin with than others. People like the New York collector Henry Clay Frick or Washington’s Duncan Phillips, while such Maecenas as Guggenheim, Katzen and Hirshhorn have more recently played similar founding roles; and contemporary collectors including the Rubells (in Miami) or Eli Broad (in L.A.) each have museums during their own actively-accumulating lifetimes. While at the time of the TM’s founding in 1925, Myers’ holdings numbered about 350 objects and that number subsequently grew to 4,600 by the time he died in 1957, obviously the bulk of the Museum’s acquisitions were not made by him personally, since it now possesses about 19,000 textiles. Nonetheless, given its location in his former residence and its curatorial “mission” being in keeping with his social-contextual orientation to his chosen field of collecting, there remained the imprint of a specific personality shaping this institution. Might that not ineluctably change with its transfer to the more corporatist context of a modern university, aimed at a student audience?

Previously in the Making: Corcoran Gallery of Art/University of Maryland

These are the sorts of questions posed most overtly, even poignantly, by our third example of a private museum/university “partnership” in Washington: that which had up until recently (one was told) been being negotiated between the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the University of Maryland (a situation further complicated by the existence of a School of Art + Design attached to the former). This situation can be described as poignant not only because of the Corcoran’s 140-year history, integral as it has been to the city’s visual-cultural scene as it evolved; but also because it was early last April that the museum issued a “Memorandum of Understanding Between The Corcoran Trust and the University of Maryland” officially announcing negotiations concerning a possible alliance between the two institutions, stating their goal was to complete an agreement “not later than end of summer 2013.”[18] Yet one waited, with hope but without further specifics being released more than 5 months beyond that deadline, prompting further concern about the Gallery’s future—as already expressed by founding of the “Save the Corcoran” organization when the museum seemed poised to sell its own 17th Street, NW building in 2012.[19]

The Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design. Photo by William Atkins/George Washington University. Copyright George Washington University Photography. All rights reserved.

Meanwhile, a series of letters addressed to the Corcoran Community by its brave Interim Director Peggy Loar (herself a competent veteran of the previous merger between the decorative-arts and design Wolfsonian Museum and Florida International University in Miami*) and released by the meanwhile-paralyzed Gallery’s Marketing & Communications staff, charted the evolution of those negotiations last Summer. Their tone shifted from optimistic reportage on the “progress… made” with specific tasks achieved (in May), through June’s referring to “efforts to conclude our partnership agreement,” to the seemingly conditional “potential” one “if realized” which “we are hopeful” to “be able to finalize the next steps, both financially and operationally” of, in July. Things did not seem to be going so well somehow, one could only read into the available information; and it was not until Feb.19 of this year that we all discovered the story had changed completely, with other players moving into this situation in the interim.

Chronologically that first university affiliation solution’s announcement, doubtless much longer in the making, seemed triggered in the public arena by former chairman of Ford’s Theatre Wayne Reynolds’ overweening bid to have himself elected Chairman of the Corcoran’s Board of Trustees, despite that body’s rebuffing his overtures, in March.[20] Reynolds’ credentials seemed to him to lie in his having “revitalized” the Theatre through a “capital expansion campaign;” his controversial proposals for the Corcoran included de-accessioning parts of the collection, and de-emphasizing the Gallery in favor of turning the School of Art + Design into a major center for techno-innovation and new media in the visual arts. (These lattermost ideas were not unrelated to some aspects of the proposed University of Maryland “partnership,” as interpreted by its President Wallace Loh.[21]) But it is if we go further back, to thumbnail the history of the Corcoran’s founding, its previous and recently re-evaluated “mission,” and its past cultural significance that it is possible to grasp what has now happened.

In 1869 banker and long-time collector William Wilson Corcoran made his intention to open his accumulated art works and the building housing them (now the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery of decorative arts) to the public known, at a dinner including then-President Ulysses S. Grant.[22] Corcoran stood at the beginning of that period when many wealthy art patrons gave their private collections to the American population by founding such institutions; and it should be remembered this was at a time when the National Gallery of Art did not yet exist, so repositories of art historical objects were few or had not been called into being, hence were significant in terms of public education. Further, Corcoran’s holdings were then unique in being focused primarily on American rather than European art: that orientation leading to the resulting institution’s being in part devoted to “the encouraging of American genius,” and collecting of domestic works “long before it was fashionable.”[23] While this was in keeping with a contemporary nationalistic political tenor, the Gallery’s publications admit Corcoran was accused of seeking “a home for the admired works of his friends” (as he knew the American artists he collected—including Inness, Huntington, Cole and Eastman—personally, socializing with them at the Washington Art Association). But motivationally as crucial was the Corcoran’s original benefactor’s siding with the Confederacy in the Civil War (1861-65), whose duration he had fled to spend in Europe; so in addition to re-affirming his patriotism, this move giving his art to the people of Washington may have made it easier for him to access it—after the collection had been seized by the Union—rather than regaining possession.[24]

The two additional aspects of W.W. Corcoran’s acts or the institutional structure and philosophy important to influencing the Gallery’s subsequent nature were: first, that “a group of local artists approached” it “about starting a school of design,” since the museum permitted copyists to work there. This request took place “as early as 1873,” and thus constituted a concept affirmed at the time of Corcoran’s death in 1888 with his bequest of $100,000 for the purpose of establishing a school associated with the museum; that had ultimately had 500 students and received accreditation in 1985. Meanwhile, the second important notion Corcoran sponsored was only realized after the Gallery had grown too large for its building, and had to construct a new one designed by Ernest Flagg, which it moved into in 1897.[25] That alteration in the scale of available exhibition space made possible mounting temporary shows in addition to displaying its permanent collection; these being successful, Director Frederick B. McGuire  prompted establishment of what were to be the internationally known Biennal Exhibitions of (initially only American) Contemporary Painting in 1907, with prize money and providing an opportunity to acquire from it for the Gallery’s (as well as local philanthropists’) collections. But consideration of how this institution’s historical background led to its character would not be complete without taking into account its second major benefactor, the “copper

William Merritt Chase, William Andrews Clark, oil on canvas, 50 1/2” x 40 1/4”, c. 1915. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Gift of William A. Clark.

baron” and (one-term) senator from Montana, William A. Clark: who bequeathed his collection of paintings and work in other media to the Gallery in 1925,[26] and whose family posthumously funded construction of the wing housing it (designed by Charles A. Platt, opened by President Calvin Coolidge in 1928).*

That permanent installation and its accompanying Salon Dore (an 18th c. room from the Parisian Hotel de Clermont he bought ca. 1904[27]), introduced European art into the Corcoran Gallery’s holdings in a major way, with emphases very much of its time in private collecting: Barbizon School landscape painting (with 22 Corots), French 19th-century (among them Daumier, Delacroix, and Degas), Old Masters (mostly Dutch and some English), and antiquities as well as decorative arts. Clark and then his widow also fostered the Biennal, donating $100,000 for a prize with his name (1921) and her endowing the Exhibition series in 1926.[28] Not only did this expansion of the Gallery’s permanent collection make it a considerable repository representing a broader range of art history, particularly 19th century; but the School emerged from its more studio-oriented original incarnation to become a professionalized, degree-granting entity important for Washington’s practicing artistic community,[29] the city’s only art school associated with a museum. Finally, the Biennal evolved into an internationally-famous event, its development into the 1960s-late 80s influenced by its merging with “the more avant-garde” Washington Gallery of Modern Art.[30]

Given all of this “personal” history the Corcoran was the result of and its unique significance(s) in this urban cultural context, there had been considerable media discussion of the institution’s April-proposed “partnership” negotiations with the University of Maryland,[31] with particular attention focused on aspects of the basis “Memorandum” that seemed they might compromise the Gallery’s character or its programming independence. Perhaps primary among these had been a clause regarding the nomination of Board of Trustee members, since the museum’s charter had that body possessing an especially large amount of power.[32] It thus sounded as if the university partner in this alliance might have had control of the museum half’s governance, though these allegations were publicly denied by UMd’s President Loh.[33] And second, while the “Memorandum” safeguarded the Gallery’s continuing existence in its location (as well as that of the College), it did seem to emphasize what the University would get (“…will provide UMD with access to the Corcoran’s collection and the resources of the College… UMD will gain a physical footprint in a historical landmark, magnifying its presence in the nation’s capital.”) At the same time, a following paragraph re management expertise might have been read to presage feared staffing cuts due to overlap.[34]

As Maryland Sen. James Rosapepe then put it, “the devil is in the details,”[35] as to whether this agreement could have positively resulted in an innovative new hybrid involving “shared faculty; joint student degrees; cooperation on developing new courses; pairing interdisciplinary teams of artists, engineers and computer scientists on projects; and expansion of the… College of Art + Design,” or negatively have turned both it and the Gallery into dependent “units” of the University. The characterizations proffered by UMd’s President Loh were recognizably in keeping with current trends in the art school world in the direction of producing students who are technologically savvy, as evidenced for instance by the most recent issue of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s magazine E + D.[36] One’s concerns were of course about institutional “branding” (naively, it now seems in light of subsequent developments): maintaining its unique profile.

Fait accompli?: Dismembered Corcoran/National Gallery of Art & GWU

There are times when what one is writing about suddenly becomes weirdly relevant, and worst fears about its implications in fact realize themselves. This was the case here, where as I was typing the preceding lead-in to a conclusion warning about the future of independent private art museums in the U.S. and readying myself to employ actual legal-terminological business models that can be applied, an announcement was made per press release.[37] They told us that, following the foundering of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s negotiations with the University of Maryland of last summer, the Gallery had returned to talks with previous potential “partners,” and had now concluded an agreement with both the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, involving essentially its own dismemberment and the end of its existence as anything but a name.[38] According to these terms, whose legality still has to be ratified by the D.C. District Attorney’s Office (which so far has not commented) due to the Corcoran’s non-profit status,[39] the NGA (as a federally-funded but non-Smithsonian institution[40]) will now own its permanent collection and operate its exhibition space as “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art;” while GW will now own its “signature” building (thereby obligating itself to renovate it, at costs estimated to range from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars), at the same time taking over running the Corcoran’s School of Art + Design. Neither of these two institutions will pay anything for what they receive as a result of this new deal, nor are they obligated to retain any of the Corcoran’s original staff (beyond one-year contracts with the College’s faculty that, given its program is expected to be integrated into GW’s smaller studio art program, mean little).[41] Everyone else hangs in space.

Left to right: GW University President Steven Knapp, Interim Director Peggy Loar of the Corcoran Gallery and School, and Earl A. Powell III, Director of the National Gallery of Art. Photo by William Atkins/George Washington University. Copyright George Washington University Photography. All rights reserved

Further, though the National Gallery of Art even issued a subsequent clarification that no artworks from the Corcoran’s original collection would be sold (de-accessioning of any holdings from public art institutions being a no-no as far as the museum community’s etiquette is concerned, because they “belong” only to the public they were given to within the framework of a bequest): this three-way agreement’s terms also have the NGA deciding which formerly Corcoran works they will accession, with those they do not consider worthy being distributed to other public museums (only in this second release with the commitment that those be located in Washington).[42] So all of this means not only that the Gallery and the School will be separated—one of the conditions that was previously anathema—but also that the Corcoran’s former collection will be disbanded as any kind of coherent unit (despite its historical status as the country’s third art museum), some of it to exist among the NGA’s permanent holdings separately labeled as “Corcoran Collection” (like “Mellon Collection,” as if it had been given to them directly).[43] The only thing which will remain of this museum’s “brand” will apparently be, on the one hand, what the National Gallery is calling a “Legacy Gallery” (where “signature works” associated with the former museum are to be shown on a rotating basis, as the NGA sees fit); and on the other, an advisory committee that is to act as a liaison, of an as-yet undefined nature. It is now the NGA’s staff that will mount Modern and Contemporary exhibitions in what was the Corcoran Gallery: as its Director “Rusty” Powell III explains, “It does answer a[n]… need for us… We would have been looking for more space.”[44]

So in conclusion, it seems time to call a spade a spade, in economic-legal terms. This is what is termed a “takeover” of the Corcoran Gallery of Art on the part of the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, just as if we were in the corporate world though the story’s protagonists are supposedly non-profit entities. An arrangement which liquidates the institution or company in question, disperses and/or absorbs its assets, has no obligations to retain any of its staff, and basically replaces its decision-making body with another one is so called.[45] The reason this makes any difference is not only because it means the Corcoran Gallery of Art has ceased to actually exist, in a city and within a local arts scene where it has really had a major impact in myriad ways; but it is a maneuver that may well be regarded as an incipient trend, potentially influencing who controls public display, presentation and interpretation of the visual arts in this country. Were enough of these processes to take place, that power or ability to wield it would lie in an ever-smaller number of hands—just as can be observed to have gradually taken place within the commercial domain—with everything going to the highest bidder, few or no strings attached (and all this PR-speak talk of “legacy” aside). These subsequent events retroactively even make one view GW’s deal with the Textile Museum as more a “merger” than a “partnership,” given the latter is being physically absorbed into the University’s campus and is to share its (the University’s) Museum with its own other permanent collections.

In other words, GW is acquiring the Textile Museum “brand” through housing it.

So one does not even have to go to California, as I expected to do here, to look at construction and insurance mogul Eli Broad’s role in relation to LACMA and USC’s competitively approaching L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art,[46] in order to map this corporatist model’s enactment and its potential implications for the artworld. We have it being played out in front of us right here at home in D.C.[47]

Julia Bernard


[1] Some of these precedents were mentioned by David Montgomery in his article “Corcoran, University of Maryland Agree to Explore Partnership,” Washington Post (April 3, 2013).

[2] Viewable at (including following Philbin quotation).

[3] Some definitions, from the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Business Law (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1961): “PARTNERSHIP: An agreement between two or more persons to voluntarily associate themselves for the purpose of carrying on a business for profit. A partnership is generally composed of individuals, but it is possible for a CORPORATION, another partnership, or an association to become a member of a partnership… the UNIFORM PARTNERSHIP ACT specifically defines ‘persons’ as including: individuals, partnerships, corporations, and other associations.” (386); versus: “MERGER… 2. In corporate law. The legal process by which one CORPORATION is absorbed by another existing corporation. The absorbing corporation continues its corporate existence and takes over all the rights, liabilities, privileges, franchises and properties of the absorbed corporation, the latter terminating its corporate existence in the process… In addition, each of the corporations that are involved in the merger must also have authority to merge in order for the merger to be valid.” (342-3) And from Bryan A. Garner, Black’s Law Dictionary (Saint Paul: WEST, 2009 ed.): “takeover: The acquisition of ownership or control of a corporation. A takeover is typically accomplished by a purchase of shares or assets, a tender offer, or a merger… friendly takeover… approved by the target corporation.” (1591) If applied to non-profits, the structures described in the latter two characterizes Corcoran/NGA/GW’s deal.

[4] The bulk of this information about the Katzen Center/AU Museum and the University is from an interview with the fomer’s Director Jack Rasmussen on Aug. 20, 2013 (for which I thank him).

[5] See illus. 5-5 in John R. Reynolds and Joanne E. King, Highlights in the History of The American University 1889-1976 (Washington: Henning Creative Printers, 1976), 71.

[6] This “embedded” legal-financial term characterizing the Katzen/AU situation from a professional source wishing to remain anonymous.

[7] See Cyrus Katzen, The Kid who Fooled the FBI: The True Story of my Life as a Dentist, Banker, Philanthropist, Collector, Connoisseur, etc. (Posterity Press/privately printed, 2008).

[8] Kunsthalle is a German term referring to a public temporary exhibition space having no permanent collection of its own, as opposed to a museum, which does.

[9] Forgey, “American’s Artsy-Curvy Turn,” Washington Post (July 3, 2005).

[10] Katzen, The Kid who Fooled the FBI, 99.

[11] This sense of the tenor of opinion was gained by my own ad hoc interviewing of the attendees.

[12] See Lonnae O’Neal Parker, “Textile Museum to get New Home,” Washington Post (Oct. 4, 2012); the anonymously authored “George Washington University Museum Approved by Zoning Commission,” GW Today (July 2, 2012); and the websites and

[13] Announced by the Museum’s press releases and on their monthly-updated website calendar.

[14] Information from “John Wetenhall Appointed Director of the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum,” Textile Museum Press Room, 4/10/2013.

[15] Laura Donnelly-Smith, “In Class Taught at the Textile Museum, GW Students Examine Artifacts up Close,” GW Today (April 6, 2012).

[16] According to Bruce P. Baganz, President of the Textile Museum’s Board of Trustees, as quoted in the above-cited announcement of Wetenhall’s appointment.

[17] See website for background on Myers.

[18] Released by the Corcoran’s Office of Communications & Marketing, signed by Harry Hopper (Head of Board of Trustees) and Wallace Loh (President, UMd), on April 3, 2013; accompanied by a press release “Under Embargo until April 3, 2012,” explaining Memorandum’s implications..

[19] See organization’s website at

[20] See David Montgomery, “Waayne Reynolds, fromer Ford’s Theatre Chair, Pitches to Save Corcoran Gallery,” Washington Post (March 5, 2013; and the same author’s “Wayne Reynolds Arranges Party to Bolster his Plans for the Corcoran,” Washington Post (March 22, 2013).

[21] Cf. “Both institutions will augment the depth and breadth of their respective artistic, educational, and scholarly programs by shared resources and exchanges. Collaborative possibilities include… new courses and joint degrees for students; affiliate and joint appointments for faculty and staff; innovative studios in product design and digital arts with interdisciplinary terms of creative artists, design engineers, computer scientists, and business entrepreneurs; online and ‘blended’ courses in fine arts, art history, and design to meet local, national, and global demand.” (p. 2 of document)

[22] From anonymously authored “History of the Corcoran Gallery of Art,” A Guide to the Corcoran Archives (Washington DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1985), 2.

[23] Anonymous, “History of the Corcoran Gallery of Art” (1985), 4 and 2 respectively.

[24] These motivational factors reported by “History of the Corcoran Gallery of Art” (1985), 2.

[25] This, preceding and subsequent facts from same source, 2-3; a second general source here was equally anonymously written Docent Handbook (Washington DC: Corcoran Gallery, 1977).

[26] The most significant sources of information drawn on here are: Royal Cortissoz (essay), Illustrated Handbook of the W.A. Clark Collection (Washington DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1928); and Lewis Hall, “Introduction,” The William A. Clark Collection: An Exhibition Marking the 50th Anniversary of the Installation of the Clark Collection at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, (Washington DC: Corcoran Gallery, 1978), 1-14 and Edward J. Nygren, “Forward,” v.

[27] For his mansion on Fifth Avenue at 77th Street in NYC, moved in turn from there to Gallery.

[28] From “Chronology of Events” in A Guide to the Corcoran Archives (1985), 5ff.

[29] The School as well as Gallery’s importance to the local scene is documented in, for example: [Anonymous,] The Corcoran & Washington Art (Washington DC: The Corcoran, 1976).

[30] See “History of the Corcoran Gallery of Art” (1985), 4.

[31] In addition to above-cited (note 1) Washington Post article by David Montgomery of April 3, 2013; see also the more polemical one by Philip Kennicott, “The Corcoran and the University of Maryland: What has Happened and What has to Happen,” Washington Post (April 12, 2013).

[32] Relevant paragraph from “Memorandum” read: “If and when a partnership agreement is signed, and as a condition for its implementation, both parties agree that the Corcoran Board will present into nomination any and all candidates proposed by UMD for phased-in election as Corcoran Trustees and as Board chair. These elections will be held in accordance with Corcoran’s charter and the Trustees’ responsibilities. The total number of candidates as well as the candidate for Board chair—who are proposed by UMD and then nominated and elected by the Board—will be to the satisfaction of UMD.” Role of the Board of Trustees documented by “Board of Trustees Records,” in A Guide to the Corcoran Archives (1985), 17-18

[33] As quoted in Montgomery, “Corcoran, University of Maryland Agree to Explore Partnership.”

[34] That paragraph: “Both parties recognize the advantages of UMD’s management expertise, financial strengths, economies of scale, and capacity for in-kind assistance in the operations of the Corcoran, in such areas as student services, administration and finance, procurement, information technology, communications and marketing, development, facilities management, and human resources” In other words, Corcoran staff in all those areas would have been redundant.

[35] From Montgomery, “Corcoran, University of Maryland Agree to Explore Partnership” (4/3/13).

[36] See Spring 2014 issue of E + D: “OVERVIEW: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is Getting Technological;” SAIC is of course another art school linked with a major museum, one whose professional profile as well as financial security has so far never seemed to be in doubt.

[37] Simultaneously by the Corcoran’s Communications & Marketing staff in the form of a letter from Interim Director Peggy Loar addressed to the Corcoran Community; and by the National Gallery of Art’s Chief of Press and Public Information Deborah Ziska, titled “The Corcoran, the National Gallery of Art and the George Washington University to Enter Historic Collaboration,” on 2/19/14.

[38] This was also the conclusion reached by Philip Kennicott in his Washington Post article in response, “The Future of the Corcoran? No Future at All” (Feb. 20, 2014), “Style”, C1 and 6.

[39] See David Montgomery, “Historic Corcoran is Coming to an End,” Washington Post (Feb. 20, 2014), A1 and 14; there is an April 7 deadline for negotiation of the arrangement’s legal details.

[40] The NGA’s notably massive, ever-increasing level of funding by the federal government, as a non-Smithsonian institution, has been written about by Katherine Boyle in “Look but Don’t Touch: When it Comes to D.C. Masterpieces, the Grandest of all Might be the National Gallery’s Budget,” Washington Post (Sept. 1. 2012), “Arts,” E 1, 6 and 8: “When compared with museums across the country, the gallery’s growth is staggering… In an increasingly hostile political climate where Congress rarely agrees on anything, let along appropriations, Congress emphatically supports the National Gallery of Art.” (E6, subtitle: “On the Mall, Old Masters at Survival”).

[41] As indicated in Montgomery, “Historic Corcoran is Coming to an End,”  A14; and Montgomery, in his subsequent “Consolation in Breakup of Corcoran” (Washington Post, Feb. 21, 2014; C1, 8), quoted Provost of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia Kirk Pillow as responding: “Decades ago GW students took their studio art instruction at the Corcoran and GW is the right institution to inherit the teaching legacy of the Corcoran.” Corcoran School students will now get GW degrees.

[42] Followup press release of Feb. 21 from Ziska: “A plan will be developed between both institutions for art not accessioned into the Gallery collections to be distributed to Washington museums.” The preceding original statement had vaguely read: “For works not accessioned by the National Gallery, the Corcoran, in consultation with the National Gallery, will develop a distribution policy and program.” Oddly, Loar used the argument that the NGA had to keep what it accessioned so could not obligate itself to take everything, as if this would not have applied to the Corcoran’s collection itself (given it was a bequest to the public as well), which was disbandable?

[43] From the same document just cited: “The NGA will determine what it can bring into its collection and the works will be identified as Corcoran Collection, as in Mellon Collection, Kress Collection, etc.”

[44] As quoted in Carol Vogel, “The Corcoran Gallery of Art May Cede Control of its Collection,” New York Times (“Art & Design,” Feb. 19. 2014); as Powell further remarked, from Montgomery, “Historic Corcoran is Coming to its End”: “It’s a huge gift to the nation… We’ll be able to expand our modern and contemporary exhibition program to be housed in the most beautiful galleries of any museum in the country.” (A14)

[45] The only other commentator on these events to actually use this verb was Sarah Anne Hughes, in the “Arts & Entertainment” section of DCist (Feb. 19. 2014), headlined “National Gallery of Art, George Washington University Plan to Take Over Corcoran” and beginning: “The National Gallery of Art and George Washington University will take over the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Corcoran College of Art + Design…” [my emphasis], although what followed was largely a reprint of Loar’s letter without further developing on any terminological implications.

[46] On that volatile situation, see the infamous Vanity Fair article by Bob Colacello “How Do You Solve a Problem Like MOCA?” (March 2012 issue), as well as: Esther Zuckerman, “LACMA and MOCA Seek Merger That Would Create an L.A. Super-Museum,” The Atlantic Wire (3/7/2013); Erica E. Phillips and Kelly Crow, “Los Angeles Museum Weighs Two Merger Bids,” Wall Street Journal (3/8/2013); and the blog CultureGrrl’ s “L.A. Times Reveals Provisions Regarding Mergers in the 2008 Eli Broad/MOCA Agreement; USC Still Interested” (3/15/2013), following up on Mike Boehm’s short report in the Los Angeles Times of Dec. 5, 2012. It is interesting both that all this reportage immediately preceded the Corcoran’s “Memorandum” of negotiations withUMd last April, and that in this CA situation no one makes any bones about using the business terms.

[47] Some sense of this deal’s impact on individuals can be had from two emails. The first was written on Feb. 19 by Chair of the Docent Committee at the Corcoran Kathleen Madigan to her flock of volunteers, trying to strike an upbeat note: “It is important that we keep communication open and support one another. Changes like this can feel unsettling but sometimes bring opportunities that we cannot imagine right now.” And the second is one of their responses: “Well, it sure sounds like the end of the Corcoran as we know it… The whole solution is incredibly unfair to all the staff and volunteers who have stood by the Museum through the worst of times. I am totally disgusted. Sorry to be so negative, but to have this institution I have loved for more than 20 years ripped apart breaks my heart.”  Finally, Philip Kennicott’s most recent salvo, “The Long Lost Corcoran,” argues its founder meant the Gallery to have an impact on politics, which is being dismantled even as it is most sorely needed at present (Washington Post, Feb. 26; C1 and 9).



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