By MARSHA MERCER
To modern ears, the phrase “American genius” may drip with irony or smack of clever marketing.
Apple stores have Genius Bars to help technological dunces. Towns in Missouri branded Highway 36 a “Way of American Genius.” Sliced Bread Saturday in Chillicothe, Mo., is Aug. 2, if you’re hungry for a morsel of genius.
Even the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation does not call the 20 to 30 people a year who get $625,000 grants over five years “geniuses” or the awards “genius grants.” Those were media labels that stuck. Officially, the winners are MacArthur fellows.
We weren’t always so skeptical about the prospect of cultivating American genius. Long before there was a National Gallery of Art or a Phillips Collection, there was the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the first art museum in Washington, D.C., and one of the first in the United States.
When art collector William W. Corcoran opened his gallery in 1869, he stated the mission clearly: The Corcoran Gallery was to be “used solely for the purpose of encouraging American genius.”
Students congregated in the new museum, sketching and painting the works of art. Delighted, Corcoran donated money in 1878 to start an art school. The Corcoran School of Art opened in 1890, two years after his death.
The art collection outgrew the first Corcoran Gallery, located at the corner of 17th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue, in the building that now houses the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. The Corcoran trustees bought a lot nearby and built a new building at 17th and New York Avenue, across from the White House. The opening in 1897 drew President Grover Cleveland and his cabinet.
After encouraging American genius for 145 years, the Corcoran has fallen on hard times. It’s facing what Philip Kennicott, art critic for The Washington Post, called “cultural euthanasia.” The museum has gone to court to get permission essentially to break its historic charter.
“It is impracticable or impossible for the operations of the Corcoran to continue in their current form,” the museum says in documents filed with the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
As a private museum that charges admission, the Corcoran competes with the Smithsonian empire and National Gallery, all of which are free.
After suffering financial problems for more than a decade, the Corcoran has agreed to give its more than 17,000 art works to the National Gallery and its Beaux Arts-style building to George Washington University. GW will operate the Corcoran College of Art + Design and take care of needed electrical, heating and ventilation and plumbing repairs estimated to cost $70 million to $100 million.
A Save the Corcoran group alleges that “egregious mismanagement” led to the gallery’s downfall and is fighting the mergers. The gallery insists this course is the best way to honor Corcoran’s wishes, given the financial constraints. The Corcoran Gallery is scheduled to close Oct. 1.
The National Gallery will incorporate the art it wants into its collection and will send the art it doesn’t want to other museums, with preference to museums in the Washington area.
The plan is that after some renovations, the Corcoran will reopen as “Corcoran Contemporary, NGA,” with contemporary and modern art from the Corcoran and National Gallery collections. As part of the National Gallery, the new Corcoran will be open to the public for free.
A small “Legacy Gallery” of paintings -- as well as the Salon Doré, an 18th century French period room; the French mantle, and the Canova Lions -- will be kept on site, reminders of Corcoran’s dream of encouraging American genius.
If you want a lasting memento of the glory that once was the Corcoran, its beautiful catalogue, “Corcoran Gallery of Art American Paintings to 1945,” has been marked down in the final days of the Corcoran Museum Shop.
The 336-page, hardcover volume with full-color prints, explanations and copious footnotes went for $60 when it was published in 2012. The other day, I bought a copy for $7.97. Sadly, genius never came so cheap.
©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.