With Wednesday’s surprise announcement that the historic Corcoran Gallery of Art would fold into GW and the National Gallery of Art, the University could immediately start measuring its bounty.
An historic 135,000 square-foot building next to the White House. More than 500 students looking for professional art skills. And a partnership that will lift GW’s name in the world of arts education, research and philanthropy.
“This is something that puts us onto the landscape that would ordinarily take years to develop that kind of reputation,” Columbian College of Arts and Sciences dean Ben Vinson said.
But administrators – now excited by the host of possibilities of GW’s largest academic takeover in 15 years – will have to spend the next six weeks answering serious questions about how to pay for it and how to integrate a tight-knit artistic community into the University.
The 145-year-old Corcoran Gallery, which is home to some of the world’s finest paintings and also runs the Corcoran College of Art + Design, has faced years of financial uncertainty. The University would join with the National Gallery of Art to take over the Corcoran, pending the approval of all three institution’s boards.
“In terms of the college becoming part of the George Washington University, it’s going to take a while to figure out exactly what the programs will be and how we will use the space,” University President Steven Knapp said in an interview Thursday.
GW will take ownership of the 17th Street building, while and the Corcoran’s 17,000 pieces of art will be stored in the National Gallery, but could eventually be distributed to museums across the country.
Knapp said faculty and administrators will decide how to use the “tremendous amount of space” that will sit empty once the artwork is removed.
Renovations to the aging building could cost tens of millions of dollars, though Knapp said the University is still figuring out the exact cost. He said GW would pay for the upgrades with the “transfer of the assets” that will occur when GW takes over the Corcoran’s multiple D.C. buildings.
“Until our faculty take a look at those spaces and really think it through, we won’t know what to do with them. So that’s going to take months to do and there’s no reason to rush that process,” Knapp said.
The University will also honor the one-year contracts for professors at the Corcoran College of Arts + Design.
“It’s impossible to say how many of the faculty who are currently there will remain in their current roles. We don’t want to go in there and upset the apple cart right at the end of an academic year,” Knapp said. “Basically we will leave things as is for the coming year while we figure out what we’re going to do for the future.”
The four-year private college is home to 554 students who are in fields like studio arts, photojournalism, photography and graphic design. Columbian College’s own visual arts programs only has about 80 undergraduate majors.
An expensive proposition
The merger and renovations come with GW knee-deep in several high-profile, costly projects. GW is in the midst of construction of a $275 million Science and Engineering Hall, a $130 million residence hall, a $75 million public health building and a $33 million museum – and is planning a multimillion dollar move of its campus health centers.
Not to mention, GW is getting its $300 million, 10-year strategic plan off the ground, which Knapp said created a vision for the University to become a “hub for the arts and culture in this city.”
Gallery officials had previously pegged the full renovations at $130 million, but Knapp said those costs would be much lower because the University would not renovate it as a museum. The cost is likely to be in the tens of millions, though Knapp said they could not yet pin a cost on the merger.
Knapp said the partnership would also open up big fundraising opportunities. Those chances would come at a good time, as the University is on the verge of launching what will likely be its first $1 billion fundraising campaign but is struggling to convince donors to pay for current construction projects.
“This gives us connections to an arts community that we have not traditionally had direct access to,” Knapp said. “We certainly hope that this will increase the attractiveness of what we’re doing in the arts to potential donors.”
“That’s a hypothesis that needs to be tested, but that’s what we’re hoping,” he added.
How the deal got done
GW was in talks with the Corcoran Gallery on 17th Street in October 2012, but Knapp said Thursday that those negotiations would have forced the University to take on too much – including finding a new spot for the design college and renovating the entire building for more gallery space. The Corcoran then began negotiating with the University of Maryland to find its next financial lifeline.
“There were no resources connected with that that would have made that possible,” Knapp said. “We can’t do it in that way.”
Knapp said Corcoran officials contacted him again last December, but it wasn’t until last month that the current agreement started to fall into place.
With the National Gallery of Art joining the negotiations, Corcoran could move most of its art out of the space so GW could build more classrooms.
“We never offered to run a massive collection of paintings and photos. We couldn’t possibly do that at the level of expertise that the National Gallery can do it,” he said. “So that solved that question: ‘What happens to the collections?’”
A “new model for liberal arts education”
The move would allow GW to create “new arts programs and interdisciplinary opportunities” while maintaining gallery space, Vinson said. Vinson also said the merger will create new opportunities for current students and enhance the Columbian College’s museum studies program.
He called bringing together the school’s liberal arts field in a practical way a “new model for liberal arts education in the 21st century.”
“While there are definitely opportunities for attracting a new type of student, this offers incredible resources for our existing students. It really stretches our arms in ways that we have not yet had the ability to do,” he said.
The merger will get underway as the University completes the Textile Museum on G Street, right next to the academic building Corcoran Hall. Both the building and the arts institution were named after William Wilson Corcoran, the famed collector who was president of GW’s Board of Trustees from 1869 to 1888.
“Our approach to the museum is not to just have a museum on campus because it’s good to have a museum on campus,” Knapp said. “It’s an extremely rich collection for an academic interaction.”
Cory Weinberg and Sarah Ferris contributed reporting.
This article appeared in the February 18, 2014 issue of the Hatchet.