Arts Desk

Does It Matter That the Corcoran Shows Just 3 Percent of Its Art?

Corcoran Gallery May Sell Building, Move to Alexandria

Corcoran Gallery of Art President Fred Bollerer and board chairman Harry F. Hopper III told The Washington Post on Monday that a principal problem with the institution's current Beaux-Arts building—which the museum may be looking to sell—is that it's just too small. "The 126,000-square-foot facility, built in 1897, is so small that less than 3 percent of the collection can be displayed at any one time," the Post reported.

Is the Corcoran's building too small relative to its art collection? No—at least, it's no smaller in this respect than any of its peer institutions.

For example, the National Gallery of Art displays approximately 2.4 percent of its art collection, according to Deborah Ziska, the museum's press chief. About one-third of the National Gallery's more than 7,000 paintings, sculptures, and decorative objects can be seen on a visit to the museum. But the museum's collection also includes nearly 120,000 works on paper, photographs, and other media—and only half of 1 percent of those are hanging in the museum.

"It is important to note that even if we had space to show all of our works on paper, photographs and media art, we could not do so due to their sensitivity to light, which greatly limits the amount of time they can be out of storage and on view," Ziska says. "Therefore we prefer to just talk about the paintings, sculpture and decorative arts."

The Smithsonian American Art Museum shows 29 percent of its paintings, sculptures, and other physical artworks, says Laura Baptiste, public affairs officer for the museum. But count graphic arts—the category that accounts for the majority of the museum's art holdings—and the museum's showing just 9 percent of its total collection. Margaret Doyle, the director of communications at New York's Museum of Modern Art, wouldn't even guesstimate, as the museum's exhibitions rotate quickly. "Suffice it to say, it's a small percentage," Doyle says. "We have more than 150,000 works in the collection."

("The percentage on view is obviously small," she added, "and whenever I get this question I can't help thinking of the 'We're talking small' scene from Arthur.")

The Corcoran can break down its collection in exact detail. Its holdings include 1,450 paintings; 645 sculptures; 632 installation, textile, and media works—and 14,340 works on paper. The Corcoran cannot show the overwhelming majority of these. But Corcoran curators can select the best of them and show them alongside the best paintings and sculptures. That's one difference between a museum and a library.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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