By Phil Hutinet
In a recent in-depth article in the Washington City Paper, Kriston Capps asked a series of questions, 22 in all, about the future of the Corcoran Gallery and School of Art & Design. Touching on everything from its merger with George Washington University, its finances and what will happen to the museum collection, the article points to an uncertain and seemingly dire future for the hallowed Washington institution.
Now, let me ask a 23rd question (and please feel free to join the conversation and ask a 24th question and so on as there will no doubt be many more coming)— what will happen to the Corcoran’s ArtReach program at THEARC which has provided visual arts training to Ward 7 and Ward 8 youth since 1992?
The Corcoran is at THEARC you ask? Yes, and so is Children’s Hospital, the Washington Ballet and many well-run, world-class cultural and educational programs. These programs have a profound impact on residents of all ages in surrounding East-of-the-River communities that too often become the dumping ground for failed social service agencies that do little to help residents and much to remunerate their founders.
While the Corcoran’s ArtReach at THEARC provides a wide variety of year-round visual arts activities, ArtReach’s programs fall into two primary categories— a community art gallery and a visual arts instruction program for area youth.
The community art gallery maintains a rigorous exhibition schedule showcasing a wide range of work and talent from beginner student projects to critically acclaimed artists. Much of the exhibition programming seeks to connect the immediate communities with the visual arts through a shared and understood visual language. Recent exhibitions this spring have included photo exhibitions of the Navy Yard and Anacostia communities and, in May, the Corcoran’s photojournalism students will exhibit a series of socially charged photographs as part of their regular curriculum.
Arguably, the visual arts programming component of ArtReach has the greatest community impact. Students age 8-18 work in all mediums from painting to sculpture. Students learn these techniques from on-site instructors and world-renowned resident artists like Mia Feuer. Feuer’s critically acclaimed An Unkindness, a massive sculptural installation depicting a nightmarish landscape reshaped by oil extraction, hung at the Corcoran Museum’s rotunda from November 2, 2013 through February 23, 2014. With access to Corcoran resident artists such as Feuer, neighborhood children receive a level of art instruction more privileged than what is found in Washington’s exclusive private schools or the region’s highest ranked public education systems.
The students’ training in the visual arts goes even further. As Melissa Green, Director of Community Partnerships and the program director for ArtReach explains “studies have shown that if a child does not visit a museum by age 13, the likelihood of that child visiting a museum will diminish rapidly ever year such that when they reach adulthood, the likelihood of them setting foot in a museum is virtually zero percent.” As such, the ArtReach curriculum includes bringing students to the Corcoran Museum on a field trip every semester. In addition, students put on an annual exhibition of their work at the museum itself (not the college) where they are introduced to the exigencies of professional art shows which includes properly framing work, interaction with a curator and the spotlight that comes with an opening reception.
While the classes continue through the end of spring semester 2014 and the community gallery exhibition schedule will go on as planned through May, a dark shadow has been cast over the ArtReach program.
Director Melissa Green and the staff who run the ArtReach program are among the 600 Corcoran employees Capps describes as being on the chopping block.
If the ArtReach program is eliminated and if Melissa Green and the staff get pink-slipped, what happens to the community gallery? Where will East-of-the-River residents send their children to receive visual arts instruction in their communities? What are the long term consequences?
So I have just derailed the conversation by asking questions 24, 25 and 26! Hopefully, none of us will ever have to answer these questions and the program will continue for another 22 years. Like the rest of the media, East City Art was promised to have some answers by April 7 only to be told by Corcoran public relations that negotiations are still underway and are quite complex (which may very well be the case). However, when I visited Corcoran’s ArtReach program at THEARC in February 2014, my goal was to write a profile about this extraordinary community resource. Instead, like all discussions Corcoran these days, it has focused on an anxious and ambivalent future. In this case, the future of the Corcoran’s 22 year-old East-of-the-River bellwether visual arts program which remains unclear at this time.