Nearly a decade has passed since the archives of the Corcoran Gallery and the Corcoran College of Art and Design—now the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design—were accessible to researchers. In June, nearly 2,000 boxes of historical documents and hundreds of thousands of architectural drawings, exhibition posters, photographs and oversized ledgers were donated to the George Washington University from the Corcoran board of trustees.
The Corcoran archives document the life and vitality of one of D.C.’s oldest cultural heritage institutions and provides nearly 150 years of insight into the history of American art museums and art education, from its founding in 1869 through 2014 when the historic agreements between the Corcoran, GW and the National Gallery of Art were finalized. The archives will be available to the public at the Special Collections Research Center in Gelman Library.
“We’ve been excited about receiving the archives since the merger was first announced. The Corcoran is an iconic organization with a rich history and these archives tell the story of not only the arts, but of the city of Washington, D.C.,” said Geneva Henry, dean of libraries and academic innovation at GW. “Access to them is highly anticipated. We have been fielding research requests and the availability of the archives will now provide fascinating insight for researchers into the Corcoran.”
Inside the Corcoran Archives
Some highlights from the hundreds of thousands of materials in these archives include journals from William MacLeod, the Corcoran Gallery’s first curator from 1873 to 1889, summarizing each day’s activities and his opinion of works offered to or purchased by the gallery; 17 letterpress volumes of outgoing correspondence concerning Corcoran activities (1876-1908); exhibition posters, promotional materials from the Corcoran College; and architectural drawings by Ernest Flagg of the historic Beaux-Arts building. Also included are plans for the proposed expansion designed by Frank Gehry (which did not materialize); photographs of events, staff, visitors and exhibitions dating from the 1880s to the 2000s; and documents related to the controversial canceled Mapplethorpe exhibition.
"Getting the Corcoran archives is significant to the Corcoran's evolution,” said Sanjit Sethi, director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. "These archives are part of our living history. In these boxes lies a history that can be activated by students, faculty, researchers and community members. People who take the time to decipher, analyze and interpret this information can both gain valuable insight into a remarkable institution and help shape the Corcoran's future.”
Due to lack of funding, the Corcoran archives were closed and sent to long-term storage in 2007. They have been unavailable to researchers since then. With the transfer to GW, the Corcoran’s history will be open to all interested researchers. In 2014, the Corcoran’s library collection also moved to GW. The Corcoran’s library collection brought more than 40,000 art and design books to GW.
Corcoran Materials at Other Institutions
All of the historical archives documenting the Corcoran’s rich institutional history came to GW. Other materials that were part of the archives but not necessarily institutionally focused—primarily art and artist records—have been distributed to other institutions, including the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library and the National Gallery of Art.
Researchers can learn more about the Corcoran archives here: https://library.gwu.edu/scrc/corcoran-archives
"Maintaining the Corcoran legacy was an important priority for the Corcoran trustees," said Corcoran Trustee Molly Rolandi. "Finding the right home for the Corcoran archives is a critical part to that legacy and GW is that home. This is only the most recent example among many of how GW has fulfilled its commitment to maintain the Corcoran legacy and identity within the GW environment. “
William Wilson Corcoran’s History with GW
GW’s Special Collections Research Center already has notable historical collections related to William Wilson Corcoran, the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s founder. These include documents related to his partnership with George Washington Riggs and the Riggs Bank. Support from both Mr. Corcoran and Mr. Riggs helped the growth of GW. Mr. Corcoran also has other ties to the university: The School of Engineering and Applied Science at GW was organized on Oct. 1, 1884, as the Corcoran Scientific School of Columbian University and was situated in the University Building at 15th and H Streets, Northwest. The school was named for Corcoran, who was a trustee and president of the Board of Trustees from 1869 to 1888. Additionally, Corcoran Hall was named in 1924 to honor Mr. Corcoran, as one earliest benefactors of the university.