At rescued Corcoran College, a new kind of uncertainty

From the outside, the Corcoran Gallery looks like the world-class institution it has always claimed to be – with its expansive copper-and-glass roof, lion statues flanking the steps and gleaming white marble staircases. But its Beaux-Arts design hides a leaking roof, and heating and cooling systems that are more than a decade outdated.

Lorenzo Cardim, a senior at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, described a building with broken easels where some classrooms are 80 degrees and in others, “you would need a scarf,” he said.

“The building is beautiful, the structure is magnificent, but inside it requires a lot of help,” said Joey Mánlapaz, a 23-year Corcoran professor and GW alumna. “It’s all a façade.”

That help could come soon, after GW shocked the city Wednesday with the announcement that it would acquire the Corcoran College of Art + Design. The threeway deal, along with the National Gallery of Art, adds a school of more than 500 students to GW’s own shrinking art department, where just 15 students earned a bachelor of fine arts degree last year.

The University will acquire Corcoran’s historic 17th Street building and its Georgetown location, taking on the responsibility for all renovations and maintenance. GW will help pay for the renovations – which have been estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars – with the Corcoran’s leftover assets, which are worth about $28 million, according to 2012 tax filings.

The National Gallery of Art will also empty out Corcoran’s 17,000 paintings and divvy them up to museums across the city and country. The deal represents a last-ditch effort to revive D.C.’s only arts school and its oldest private art institution after years of strain from mismanagement.

While the deal has relieved the college of its biggest financial worries, it brings a new kind of uncertainty.

A small body of students who take studio classes comprising about a dozen students each means Corcoran undergraduates know nearly all of the faces passing by in cramped hallways. They worry about losing that sense of closeness after their school links up with GW.

“We feel that the soul of the Corcoran – our people – are going to go with the merger,” said Halsey Wright Berryman, a senior at the school. “Even though the Corcoran is a little bit broken, we do see ourselves as a family.”

Administrators will spend the next six weeks finalizing details of the takeover, as faculty at both schools question how to combine two distinct institutions.

Those talks are already underway: Columbian College of Arts and Sciences dean Ben Vinson presented the deal to his faculty Friday, and the chair of the fine art and art history department, Philip Jacks, will meet with senior faculty members Monday. But top administrators have promised to move slowly with their plans.

“An opportunity of this magnitude, there is no need to rush,” Vinson said Thursday.

An independent, but uncertain, institution
Over the past several years, the Corcoran has tried selling buildings, making small-scale renovations and hiring new faculty, while advocacy groups like Save the Corcoran demanded more public scrutiny of what they called incompetent leadership.

But the list of repairs needed for the 115-year-old building has grown longer, while gallery visitors dropped 60 percent and fundraising fell by 50 percent in the last seven years. Nearly all close to the school believed that a rescue from another institution was the only solution.

Faculty, whose faith has waned over two years of uncertainty, now believe the deal could save the cash-strapped school – but at a price.

University President Steven Knapp has said he hopes to make GW the “hub for arts and culture in the city,” and is already thinking about ways to use the 17th Street building for classes and events. Students who study there full-time will receive degrees inked with both “GW” and “Corcoran” starting next year.

But, Cardim points out, “GW is not an arts school.” Instead of cramming for exams in the library, Cardim said he and his classmates will stay up three days in a row, coffee and cigarettes in hand, to finish projects in welding and sculpture. “It’s a really bohemian, avant-garde mentality,” he added.

Cardim and several student government members sent a letter to the Corcoran’s board this week demanding more transparency as they await word about where they will study and who will teach them a few years down the line.

So far, Knapp has said GW would honor current Corcoran faculty’s one-year contracts. Corcoran provost William Richardson told faculty Friday that he anticipated that “GW will need the services” of all professors, according to an email obtained by The Hatchet.

But Mark Cameron Boyd, who has taught part-time at Corcoran for more than a decade, said emails from students asking if he still had a job flooded his inbox last week. He and other professors were also offered free counseling in the days following the announcement.

Boyd, who specializes in art theory, said Corcoran’s more than 100-member faculty core is crucial to keeping part of the school’s identity, but he’s not sure how long GW will keep them around.

“If GW absorbs us and they have a whole new curriculum and a whole new picture of things, they might look at our courses, and say, ‘You know what? ‘We’ve already got that covered,’” Boyd said.

Leslie Exton, who has taught at Corcoran for 25 years, warned that the transition would likely be tense as professors watch GW dismantle the institution, but said most faculty feel “resigned” to the deal because there are no alternatives.

“The concern is that the funkiness and wonderfulness of the Corcoran will be lost, but it was going to be lost anyway – we wouldn’t survive as we were,” Exton said. “The status quo is gone. We could not stay as we are.”

Tough times for art schools
The merger comes as art students across the country head into diminishing programs and face high unemployment rates. Fine arts was rated the third worst college major – based on job prospects and average salary – by Forbes in 2012.

Frank Wright, 81, who has taught drawing classes at GW for the past four decades, said it’s getting tougher for students to earn a living selling their art.

“I haven’t sold a piece in three or four years,” said Wright, whose paintings have hung at the National Portrait Gallery and Library of Congress. “For a while, I could just name my price and people would take it or leave it and a lot of people took it. The arts are having a hard time now.”

GW’s fine arts programs have shrunk over time, Wright said, gradually cutting majors like printmaking, visual communication and sculpture.

GW’s undergraduate program now boasts about 70 students, with most classes filled by other liberal arts majors who need to check off requirements.

Mánlapaz, who earned her undergraduate degree from GW before teaching at Corcoran, said arts programs nationwide have been forced to switch focus.

“The concept of a traditional artist is that you work in your studio and you hope somebody will discover you. Today, the art students aren’t really interested in that. When I teach my students, I always tell them to be a bit more practical,” Mánlapaz said.

Other arts programs – like the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, which offers majors such as metalsmithing, glass blowing and transportation design – have seen the demand surge for creative-minded students.

“There’s an old stereotype about the starving artist, but I don’t think that’s true,” said the college’s president, Richard Rogers. “With our society’s great concern and interest with innovation, more and more people are looking to the arts.”

A more diversified University
GW has already started talking about big plans to renovate Corcoran’s gallery space, connect with big-time arts donors and create interdisciplinary academic programs.

The merger also comes as the University completes the $275 million Science and Engineering Hall. While the University has taken on $1 billion in debt to enhance its research profile, top officials said the arts can help balance those interests.

“That these are happening in unison to me is almost poetic,” said Vinson, who became dean of Columbian College last summer. “I can’t think of a more opportune moment to really articulate the balance between the arts and sciences.”

Skeptics of the merger could look to models like Baltimore’s Peabody Institute as an example of a research institution that has successfully absorbed an arts school.

The music conservatory joined science and research giant Johns Hopkins University – where Knapp once served as provost – in 1977. Andrea Trisciuzzi, associate dean of external relations for the Peabody Institute, said linking the two schools helped draw students and quell parent fears.

“In a world where a parent is constantly worried about children going into the arts and if they’re going to be able to eat, having a degree that also says ‘Johns Hopkins University’ – there’s something in that that appears like it will translate into the world,” Trisciuzzi said.

Trisciuzzi also said the merger helped balance out the “science, science, science” culture at Johns Hopkins, something GW administrators could look to mirror as the University pushes its engineering program forward.

“For large research institutions, it brings an artistic and creative component that might otherwise be missing,” Trisciuzzi said.

– Sarah Ferris and Cory Weinberg contributed reporting.

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