Corcoran Gallery of Art

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1874

William Corcoran was a D.C. native, having been born in Georgetown in 1798. He started his first business by age 19, lost it in an economic downturn by age 27, and was running another by 33. In 1837, he got into the stock market, and quickly became wealthy, then began collecting art.

Soon his art collection was so good, he felt obliged to open his house twice a week to visitors eager to see it. As he became active in philanthropy in the 1850s, he decided to construct a building specifically to house his art, and work commenced in 1859 on a property that is now the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery across from the White House. Corcoran, a Southern sympathizer who retired to Europe to wait out the Civil War, returned after the war to finish the museum, and leave it (and its collection, valued at $100,000 in 1865 dollars) to a board of trustees.

The Corcoran Gallery officially opened in 1874. Unlike the other museums in the District of Columbia, the Corcoran was particularly committed to art education (and remains so to this day). Corcoran gave a further donation in 1878 specifically to establish a college of art and design, which is fully integrated with the museum. From the start, per Corcoran’s instructions, the gallery charged a small entrance fee most of the time but followed his tradition of opening for free two days per week.

In 1897 the Corcoran moved to a large new Beaux-Arts gallery built to house both its burgeoning collection and the college. Additional artworks contributed by other private donors necessitated further expansions. With more than 17,000 pieces of art, and the only accredited school of art and design in Washington, D.C., (offering undergraduate and graduate degrees as well as youth classes and extensive continuing education), the Corcoran operated for decades as a rare privately funded museum competing with the free National Gallery of Art and Smithsonian branches.

Then in 2014 that all changed. After years of indecisiveness by its board, the Corcoran announced that it was donating most of its art collection to the National Gallery. The Corcoran art school and building, meanwhile, would be taken over by George Washington University.