Financier and D.C. native William Wilson Corcoran sought to define American art and create a national gallery that would serve both the elite and the masses. The Corcoran Gallery of Art, which was “Dedicated to Art,” was the first public art museum in Washington, D.C.
There are hundreds of fine pictures and triumphs of sculpture hidden away in private houses and rarely seen, and, therefore, of no use in awakening that taste for art which Mr. Corcoran is so anxious to cultivate in his countrymen.John W. Forney
An Artistic Upstart
William Wilson Corcoran (1798–1888) was born into a middle-class mercantile family in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He tried his hand at a variety of vocations, including dry-goods store owner, real-estate manager, and stockbroker, and he cofounded the Corcoran & Riggs firm, which financed most of the United States’ debt during the Mexican–American War.Holly Tank, “Dedicated to Art: William Corcoran and the Founding of His Gallery,” Washington History 17, no. 1 (2005): 26–27 and Henry Cohen, Business and Politics in America from the Age of Jackson to the Civil War (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Corporation, 1971), 99. In addition, Corcoran was a slave owner and Democrat with well-known Southern sympathies. The art world seemed far from these financial and political dealings.Tank, “Dedicated to Art,” 27 and Alan Wallach, Exhibiting Contradiction: Essays on the Art Museum in the United States (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 27.
A trip to Europe in the 1840s and 1850s, and especially the French and German salons, sparked Corcoran’s interest in art, and he began to acquire pieces directly from European painters.Tank, “Dedicated to Art,” 31. As his collection grew, he hired architect James Renwick to add wings to his house to display the artwork.
Building a Network
Corcoran developed a network, including American diplomats Thomas G. Clemson and J. S. Morgan, to purchase both European and American paintings for his growing collection.Cohen, Business and Politics, 100. He also worked with art dealers Luman Reed and Abraham Cozzens, as well as the European naturalist and patron Alexander von Humboldt, whose estate offered fifteen thousand volumes, paintings, and instruments to Corcoran upon Humboldt’s death in 1859.William Wilson Corcoran, A Grandfather's Legacy; Containing a Sketch of his Life and Obituary Notices of Some Members of his Family, together with Letters from his Friends (Washington, D.C.: Henry Polkinhorn, 1879), 184–85. In addition, advised by wealthy friends, Corcoran personally financed up-and-coming painters and sculptors, such as Thomas Ball, John G. Brown, Rembrandt Peale, Hiram Powers, and William D. Washington.
Curating “American” Taste
Corcoran made it his first priority to demonstrate that anyone and everyone could interact with his collection, “to elevate public taste through the contemplation of art.” He described his gallery as a place for the “illumination of the unlettered masses.”Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran (Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1976), 5. To that end, Corcoran focused his efforts on acquiring works by contemporary Americans for contemporary Americans, mostly nineteenth- and early twentieth-century painters. He had spent $1.6 million on his collection by the time he died in 1888.David Montgomery, “Corcoran Gallery: Why Don't Donors Give?” Washington Post, July 20, 2012, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/corcoran-gallery-why-dont-donors-give/2012/07/19/gJQAJkNGyW_story.html?utm_term=.5356fdf3b31a.
In attempting to insert American art into the Western art historical canon, which in his mind spanned from ancient Greece to the Renaissance to the modern European masters, Corcoran wanted his gallery to be an “American Louvre.”Tank, “Dedicated to Art,” 33. Once again, he commissioned architect James Renwick to construct a building in the French style, creating a setting for his collection comparable to the galleries that housed works by Europe’s masters.
Institutional Mission and Governance
To run the museum, Corcoran established a board of trustees and the position of museum director. In an 1869 letter to the future trustees, Corcoran wrote that the gallery would be “Dedicated to Art and used solely for the purpose of encouraging American genius in the production and presentation of works pertaining to the ‘Fine Arts.’”Alan Wallach, Exhibiting Contradiction: Essays on the Art Museum in the United States (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 32. The phrase “Dedicated to Art” was engraved over the museum’s entrance.
The Corcoran College of Art, which later became the Corcoran College of Art and Design, was founded in 1890, after Corcoran’s death.Kevin P. Ray, “When A Museum Falters: The Corcoran Gallery of Art,” Cultural Assets: Legal Analysis and Commentary on Art and Cultural Property (blog), November 4, 2014, http://www.gtlaw-culturalassets.com/2014/11/when-a-museum-falters-the-corcoran-gallery-of-art. The purpose of the college was to teach artists and to train them with the works in the collection.
In 1897, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran College of Art and Design moved from the Renwick building on 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue into the Ernest Flagg–designed building at 17th Street and New York Avenue. In 2014, the Corcoran’s Board of Trustees announced that George Washington University would take over the Corcoran College and that the National Gallery of Art would assume the Corcoran Gallery’s collection.Lonnae O'Neal Parker and Jacqueline Trescott, “A Corcoran Gallery of Art Timeline,” Washington Post, February 19, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/a-corcoran-gallery-of-art-timeline/2014/02/19/b5d54c70-998e-11e3-80ac-63a8ba7f7942_story.html?utm_term=.daf55054d84d.
Public Reaction and a “National Gallery”
“Washington may now pride herself upon a National Gallery of Art,” one newspaper reported on Corcoran Gallery’s opening in 1874.E. A. Wiswall, “The Corcoran Gallery of Art,” The Aldine 7 (June 1874). The press and the public generally echoed that sentiment, praising the collector, his gallery, and its contents. Well-to-do art lovers, including Earl Dufferin, Julia B. Shedd, H. K. Porter, and Fr. V. Gerolt, touted the gallery as “exalting” and a “monument for Washington.” At its peak, from 1872 to 1878, between 80,000 and 115,000 people visited the gallery annually.Rufino, “‘Art Building,’” 27.
Corcoran realized the central role Washington, D.C., would need to play in ensuring his gallery’s success. He sponsored local artists, serving as their patron and directing wealthy clientele to their studios, and supported the Washington Arts Association, a short-lived organization that aimed to establish a national art gallery.Tank, “Dedicated to Art,” 32–33.
At the same time, Corcoran was keenly interested in encouraging locals of all backgrounds to visit his gallery. The Washington Daily Chronicle reporter John W. Forney wrote, in 1869, that “there are hundreds of fine pictures and triumphs of sculpture hidden away in private houses and rarely seen, and, therefore, of no use in awakening that taste for art which Mr. Corcoran is so anxious to cultivate in his countrymen.”Corcoran, A Grandfather’s Legacy, 538.
To make his collection accessible to members of the public from all walks of life, Corcoran modified the gallery’s admission policies. In 1875, the gallery stayed open on Thursday nights, and soon it remained open on Sunday afternoons as well. In addition, Corcoran made the admission, regularly twenty-five cents, free “for at least two days a week and on holidays.”Tank, “Dedicated to Art,” 46–47.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art, however, was not to become the national repository for fine art. Historians have attributed Corcoran’s failure in this regard to his inability to tie the gallery “to the social functions of a broader Washington elite in the way that Boston’s educators and businessmen coalesced around the Museum of Fine Arts and the other civic cultural institutions of the Gilded Age on whose boards they served.”Kelsey E. Tyler, “Framing Cultural Capitalism: William Wilson Corcoran and Alice Walton as Patrons of the American Art Museum," (master’s thesis, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, 2012). In addition, as other museums and galleries opened in and around Washington, D.C., in the 1930s and 1940s, the Corcoran’s place as the “National Gallery” further came into question.
Closing the Corcoran
In 1959, the Corcoran Gallery of Art began to face financial troubles. By the beginning of the 1970s, directors came and went with such frequency that the gallery lacked a cohesive vision. In addition, many other institutions, including the Phillips Collection and the National Gallery of Art, opened in Washington, D.C., weakening the Corcoran’s claim as the national gallery of art. Still, though, the Corcoran pushed through these tough times until the end of the decade.
In 1989, the gallery planned—and then canceled—a controversial exhibition on photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, decisions which led to public protests and artist boycotts.Barbara Gamarekian, “Corcoran, to Foil Dispute, Drops Mapplethorpe Show,” New York Times, June 14, 1989, http://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/14/arts/corcoran-to-foil-dispute-drops-mapplethorpe-show.html and Roxanne Roberts, “900 Protest Corcoran Cancellation; Group Gathers at Museum in Support of Mapplethorpe,” Washington Post, July 1, 1989, reprinted at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/04/04/the-robert-mapplethorpe-protest-at-the-corcoran-was-one-of-washingtons-most-stunning/?utm_term=.ba0246f485bf. Although William Wilson Corcoran had made his mark by opening an “independent museum, not subject to any government pressure,” faced with the loss of federal grant money, the institution blinked. In the 1990s, plans for the Corcoran’s expansion similarly fell through, when cost estimates for the Frank Gehry–designed building skyrocketed and crucial donors backed out.Montgomery, “Why Don't Donors Give?”
These shortcomings, coupled with vacant executive positions and a lagging endowment, ultimately led to the George Washington University’s assumption of many of the Corcoran's assets and the National Gallery of Art’s assumption of the collection.David Montgomery, “Corcoran Gallery, GWU and National Gallery Close Deal to Transform Corcoran,” Washington Post, May 15, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/corcoran-gallery-george-washington-university-and-national-gallery-close-deal-to-transform-corcoran/2014/05/15/4ddba908-dc4a-11e3-b745-87d39690c5c0_story.html?utm_term=.9ac2ad2834ea and David Montgomery and Maura Judkis, “Judge Approves Corcoran Gallery of Art Plan to Partner with National Gallery, GWU,” Washington Post, August 18, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/judge-approves-corcoran-gallery-of-art-plan-to-partner-with-national-gallery-gwu/2014/08/18/18eefdbc-2326-11e4-8593-da634b334390_story.html?utm_term=.acae3c4f54bd.