Fake Funeral for Corcoran Gallery

A playful farewell to one of America's oldest art museums.

Linda Simmons, Carolyn Campbell, Elizabeth Punsalan
Organizers of the memorial, Linda Simmons, Carolyn Campbell, Elizabeth Punsalan Photo: by John Punsalan
Linda Crocker Simmons reading in Corcoran Atrium Photo: by John Punsalan

Linda Crocker Simmons reading in the Corcoran Atrium.
Photo: John Punsalan.

At 1 p.m. on September 27, a crowd of around 50 people decked out in Victorian-era funeral garb gathered on the steps of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, to wish a final goodbye to the museum and its legacy two days before it closed for much-needed renovations (see “Corcoran Gallery Attendance Quadruples as Closure Looms“).

Although the idea of holding a memorial service for a museum may seem odd—in an announcement on Facebook, organizers called for a dress code of “black arm bands, men in mourning coats, women in dark veils with black umbrellas”—there was a genuinely bittersweet air to the event. Artists, students, and former Corcoran staffers gathered on the museum’s steps, placing a wreath near the entrance before touring the galleries for a final time while reading the names of prominent Corcoran supporters. Members of the crowd teared up as the list went on, starting with founder William Wilson Corcoran, followed by artists including Frank Stella and Childe Hassam, and Corcoran staffers at every level, even the janitor. Exiting the museum, the crowd formed a procession, led by a hearse, to the Corcoran mausoleum at nearby Oak Hill Cemetery.

Procession at Oak Hill Cemetery

Procession at Oak Hill Cemetery.
Photo: John Punsalan.

Remarks were made by Carolyn Campbell, the museum’s first public relations representative in the 1970s and early ’80s on behalf of former Corcoran director Michael Botwinick, and Corcoran curator emerita Linda Crocker Simmons—who was the lead organizer of the mock funeral event.

In the weeks after the DC Superior Court’s approval of the Corcoran’s dissolution (see “Judge Approves Dissolution of Corcoran Gallery“), an obituary for the museum in the Washington Post mentioned its “self-induced malaise of financial management, artistic timidity, and self-censorship,” according to the Washington City Paper. Instead of dwelling on regrets and the painful outcome of this process, Botwinick encouraged the crowd to “reflect on the important work that you were a part of…[and] that of the friends and colleagues you admire.”

Linda Simmons, Carolyn Campbell, Elizabeth Punsalan

Organizers of the memorial, Linda Simmons, Carolyn Campbell, Elizabeth Punsalan.
Photo: John Punsalan.

The memorial may have offered an opportunity for artists and past employees to reminisce about the Corcoran’s heyday, but there was also a palpable sense of concern over the fate of the Corcoran’s collection of 17,000 pieces of art. Shelby Cobb, the museum’s associate registrar from 1975 to 1980, told the Washington Post: “The registrar’s job is to look after the artwork—its comings and goings up on the walls, and loans—and it’s like my children are being scattered.”

 


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