The Corcoran Gallery and School of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. does two things well: it displays art to the public and it educates artists and other creative thinkers about art and ideas. It tells us of our past while encouraging visions of the future.
Corcoran leaders must now commit themselves to the institution’s own future. They must commit themselves to reinventing with a bold vision for that future. And they must commit themselves to appointing the appropriate leaders to take on this task.
A Teachable Moment for a Learning Institution
No matter what challenges it has faced in the past, the Corcoran has consistently and steadfastly presented exhibitions to educate students and the public. Thanks to the dedication of its staff and faculty and the vision of its founder, there is much to be proud of about the Corcoran. Recent issues, however, have made it evident that the Corcoran must transform and adapt, to become a honed and compelling institution – something real and needed in an evolving society.
We have learned through the near selling of the cherished Ernest Flagg building that houses both the school and the museum, that it is expensive to run and maintain an historic building. We have learned that it can be challenging to maintain a unique identity in a city as rich in culture as Washington, D.C. And we have learned that the failures of poor leadership can hamper the good will of the community.
But we have also learned that the communitiy still passionately loves the Corcoran and the building that houses it. We have learned that of all of the Corcoran’s challenges, none of them is insurmountable. And now, our leaders must also learn that to reinvent means to embrace a larger vision.
Defining the Role of the Museum in the 21st Century
Today, art is not limited to objects on the wall, it is about the ideas that inform them. Art is what happens when ideas are exchanged and shared and put forth into the world. Art asks questions to solve problems.
Building upon existing programs, exhibitions, and curriculum, the Corcoran should merge into one institution that builds upon its legacy and embraces the essence of the art idea to embrace what is needed now. Through a blending of the goals of the college and museum, the Corcoran will become a leader of creative inquiry, educating students and the broader community about pressing social issues. Guided by its legacy of nearly 150 years and its breathatking collection of thousands of masterworks, it will continue to be a keeper of American culture from which we can learn.
This inspired museum – a center of the arts ecosystem – could regain its independence and flourish as a risk-taking, innovative, yet deeply-rooted America institution. As one of the few private museums in a city full of federally-funded institutions slowed by bureaucracy, the Corcoran is uniquely positoned to embrace difficult topics and, if presented well, afford transformation and understanding. Through the merging of education and art, we have a chance to rebuild the Corcoran into a shining light of creativity.
Preserving Our Past While Leading the Future
It’s time for the Corcoran to say goodbye to the mistakes of the past and hello to the opportunities plentiful before it. It cannot do this by making irrevocable decisions that jeopardize its independence. It should not decide to sell buildings or partner with local universities simply out of desperation. It must instead get healthy and choose strategic partners based on a bold mission and vision. To do otherwise would only represent further failures of leadership. Unfortunately, they have not yet articulated either.
The solutions to remain an independent institution of Washington exist. Corcoran leaders must only be brave enough to implement them.