For decades, the Corcoran Gallery of Art was an iconic museum in the nation’s capital, and one of the oldest privately supported cultural institutions in the U.S. But after years of inept management and financial woes, the Corcoran closed its ornate doors in 2014.
But its vast art collection of 19,493 works was not lost. The National Gallery of Art initially won the rights to most of the museum’s collection, at no cost, while The George Washington University took over the Corcoran School of Art and Design and the museum’s historic building on 17th Street. But in the end, the National Gallery of Art, which had been criticized for the 2014 deal, only acquired about 40% of the Corcoran’s collection. Almost 9,000 pieces went to the American University Museum, while others were distributed among 10 Smithsonian museums and other museums throughout the city, several universities and the U.S. Supreme Court.
While the decision to shutter the troubled Corcoran was a painful one for many Washingtonians, who feared that much of the collection would be shelved away from public view, supporters of the closure say it was the only way to keep the Corcoran’s legacy alive — and its artwork still mostly in the city.
Washingtonians now have the chance to revisit a large chunk of that artwork in the first in-depth exhibition from the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art on display at the American University Museum — whose director, Jack Rasmussen, has described the acquisition of the Corcoran holdings as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The exhibition, “Moves Like Walter: New Curators Open the Corcoran Legacy Collection,” is inspired by Walter Hopps, who was for a short time the director of the Corcoran and “an erratic but seminal” American curator of contemporary art, according to the AU Museum.
“Moves Like Walter” was curated and conceived by AU graduate students studying art history, arts management and studio art. Dubbed “a playful and provocative interpretation” of the Corcoran’s collection, the exhibition explores themes like race, gender and power. The show features work by women and artists of color such as Joan Cassis, William Tolliver and Carroll Sockwell, and the pieces range from haunting black-and-white photography to classic portraiture to abstract art.
The students divided their curations into five sub-groups: “Boundless: Existing Within Ambiguous Space”; “The Road Home”; “The Selfless Spirit: Nature vs. Nurture and the Effects of Motherhood in the Corcoran Collection”; “American Legacy: Reconsidering Non-Western Subjects in the Corcoran Collection”; and “Redefining the Gaze: Shifting the Power.”
Abigail Swaringam was one of the graduate students who helped to curate the exhibit.
“The process was very exciting for me because I got to translate a lot of the questions and themes that were relevant to my art historical studies,” she told us. “When trying to decide my angle and work of art that I wanted to focus on, I had one primary research question: What had the Corcoran collection naturalized? This question prompted our group’s section of the exhibition.”
Michael Quituisaca was also a fellow curator of the exhibit. He specializes in 19th-century American art.
“Everyone in the class had the sort of intention to be part of a major exhibition in a respected museum,” he said. “We all came in with that motive. We wanted to work on something really cool.”
Quituisaca explained that the class was divided up among the five designated sub-groups. His group’s focus was the representation of non-Western subjects, or how the artists in the Corcoran collection depicted race. Some groups examined motherhood, others abstraction.
Quituisaca’s passion for art started at a young age. He was a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Ecuador. He had never had the opportunity to visit any museums with his family but was finally able to do so through his schooling. Raised in New York City, Quituisaca distinctly remembers visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“In that museum, there was a painting called ‘Heart of the Andes’ and it depicted Ecuador,” he recalled. “It was beautiful — the Ecuador I remembered.”
What he took the most pleasure in was that it was housed in the American art section.
“For me as an Ecuadorian-American, seeing my homeland in an American arts section made me feel American,” he said.
Swaringam worked with the “American Legacy: Reconsidering Non-Western Subjects in the Collection” group, writing the introduction in the catalogue. She said diplomats in particular should see the exhibition not only because it’s a diverse sampling of work with many international overtones, but also because it’s a great opportunity to survey the history of art collecting in America from the country’s formation to the present day.
“Collecting art is not just economic exchange,” she said. “Art has always served political and social purposes. By examining the process of collection, we can discover what ideologies were important to whom and why.”
Moves Like Walter: New Curators Open the Corcoran Legacy Collection
through Dec. 15
American University Museum
4400 Massachusetts Ave., NW
(202) 885-1000 | www.american.edu/cas/museum
About the Author
Kate Oczypok (@OczyKate) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.