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Plans set for merger of Corcoran Gallery with George Washington University, National Gallery

One of the nation's oldest museums, known for its daring contemporary art exhibitions next to the White House and for its financial troubles, is being taken over by two larger institutions and will soon close for renovations.

Under an agreement signed Thursday, the long-struggling Corcoran Gallery of Art and its College of Art and Design will merge with George Washington University and the federally funded National Gallery of Art.

The three sides agreed the Corcoran will close around Oct. 1 for an undetermined amount of time and undergo renovations. When it reopens, it will offer free admission like the National Gallery's other buildings on the National Mall.

The takeover agreement brings an end to years of uncertainty for the Corcoran. At one point its board considered selling the historic Beaux-Arts building that needs at least $100 million in renovations. Last year, the museum pursued a partnership with the University of Maryland that fell apart.

Peggy Loar, the Corcoran's interim director and president, said the new arrangement saves the collection and the museum-based college.

"I think there's a euphoria that we have a wonderful solution here," she said. "The one thing we need to work at is to maintain that synergy between the collections and curators along with the faculty and the students."

The bulk of the Corcoran's 17,000 artworks will be brought into the National Gallery's collection, keeping them available to the public.

National Gallery Director Earl A. Powell III said the Corcoran's American and modern art collections complement and enhance the museum's existing holdings.

"You put the two together and you get one of the greatest, if not the greatest, collection of that art in this country," he said.

While the Corcoran name will be preserved, the museum will have less than half its current gallery space. More space will be devoted to the art school.

"Face it: the Corcoran isn't going to be the old Corcoran. It is going to be the new National Gallery," Powell said. "I think we will hope to kind of push edges here."

Artworks that may duplicate current holdings will be distributed to other museums with a preference to those in Washington. But all sides agreed no artworks will be sold as part of the merger.

"The reason it is such a no-no to sell collections is where do you stop?" Loar said. "We wouldn't have a collection left."

The deal is subject to approval by the D.C. Superior Court.

George Washington University will take on the bulk of the financial obligations for renovating the building, and the National Gallery will pay for all exhibition programs and museum operations.

A first phase of renovations is expected to cost $25 million. Initial costs will be covered by $35 million transferred from the Corcoran to the university and the sale of a separate Corcoran building. The university will raise funds for further renovations, said George Washington President Steven Knapp.

The Corcoran College will be gradually integrated into the university. Some programs could be merged with existing arts programs or brought under the Corcoran College umbrella, Knapp said.

"It will make our university more of a hub for the arts," he said.

The Corcoran was founded in 1869 with a mission dedicated to art and "encouraging American genius." At one time, William Wilson Corcoran also sat on George Washington University's board. Now the school will help protect his legacy.

"I think it's an opportunity for our nation's capital frankly," Knapp said, "because it enables us to maintain the Corcoran legacy and the Corcoran collections that might otherwise have been dispersed."

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Follow Brett Zongker at https://twitter.com/DCArtBeat

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