WASHINGTON – When word spread that the Corcoran Gallery of Art was considering selling its historic downtown building, outrage rippled in the local art community. Alums, collectors and aficionados banded together to preserve one of the city’s most prestigious institutions.
“What makes the Corcoran special is the building and space,” said D.C. native Holly Bass at a community meeting Thursday night. “As an artist, I find the building deeply inspiring.”
That building is chronically in the red. D.C.’s oldest private museum posted a $7 million deficit for the 2012 fiscal year. On June 5, board members voted to put the Beaux Arts building on the market and seek an alternative location either in D.C., Maryland or Virginia.
But supporters of the Corcoran see this as a downward spiral.
“I come in a state of grief,” said meeting attendee Linda Crocker Simmons. “I think you are committing suicide if you leave this building.”
The idea behind relocating is based on the estimated $130 million it would cost to modernize the current site. Even with architectural updates, there still wouldn’t be enough space to display the gallery’s full collection. Currently, less than 3 percent of the collection can be seen.
And then there is the College of Art and Design, which is “bursting at the seams,” said Andy Grundberg, associate provost and dean of undergraduate studies. Because the original builders did not envision a college with 600 students, some classes have been moved to the basement to carve out space.
Board members are looking into various permutations of what comes next. Potential plans include rebuilding the current site and sending the College of Art and Design elsewhere or selling the building and moving the museum and school to another location, says Mark Swartz, director of development and communications for the Corcoran.
Talk of relocating out of the District attracted the attention of D.C Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, whose office contacted Corcoran officials in June and set up a meeting in July. Details of that meeting are not available, Swartz said.
The board is “in the discovery phase right now,” he said. “That includes putting the building on the market and seeing what kind of offers it brings and, with that information, the board can make decisions about the future of the Corcoran.”
For some, securing a future for the Corcoran is more than just a question of money. It’s also a question of nostalgia and reputation.
Artist Bill Dunlap says he owes the institution a great debt for his international career as a painter and sculptor. Though he currently has shows in New York and Thailand, Dunlap credits the Corcoran with giving him a head start.
“When I was up and coming, there was something special about the Corcoran,” he said. “It was warm and welcoming.”
He still remembers coming to D.C. and seeing Ed McGowin’s “True Stories” exhibit in 1975. The majesty of the building stuck with him, and he now sees its future as “deeply embedded in its past.”
“The idea that this place might disappear for the next classes is just unacceptable,” he said while choking back tears, adding that he feels “disgust and disbelief followed by melancholy.”
Swartz says that even if the building is sold, current academic classes and exhibits will not be impacted.
WTOP’s Heather Brady contributed to this report.Follow WTOP on Twitter.