Slaughter On NY Avenue

or, The Museum’s Lost Soul

On the closing and denuding of one of the venerated museums in Washington: the Corcoran Gallery of Art. 

The art in the Corcoran’s Flagg Building had been part of Washington, DC culture since 1897. From Wiki:

“At its peak, the museum owned a significant collection including work from Rembrandt Peale, Eugène Delacroix, Edgar Degas, Thomas Gainsborough, John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet, Mariano Fortuny, Pablo Picasso, Edward Hopper, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Gene Davis, and many others.”

I was a part-time and full-time professor at the original Corcoran College of Art+Design for 7 years. Then the recession hit;  the gallery’s donations and endowments dried up; the college closed; the art was confiscated; the institution itself repurposed.

How did this piece come about?

One time my band was playing at the original 930 Club on F Street. Before the show I was wandering through the National Portrait Gallery nearby and I missed the museum’s closing announcement.

Suddenly finding myself lost and locked in the Portrait Gallery with the over-heads clicking off, I hurried through empty rooms and corridors past hundreds of staring faces refusing to tell me how to get the Hell out before I missed the gig. Finally a security guard saw me and kicked me out. 

I remembered that moment when photographing this piece, thinking about the convulsions of a ghost having a nightmare, trapped inside the Flagg Building looking to get out.

The museum now is mostly emptiness and scaffolding – large spaces and labyrinths of horizontal and vertical behind-the-scenes passageways disclose abandoned student work amid debris in shadow and reflection and stories-obscuring billowing sheets. Late at night after class there’s nobody there.

Parts of the gallery’s gutting are almost matchlessly lovely but evoke a mausoleum. I found myself thinking about the ballet “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue” by Rodgers & Hart. The score is inspiring – a drama of highs and lows of intertwining beautiful melodies and ghostly movements evoking late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American city activity and sounds.

The ballet’s use of the melody from “Three Blind Mice” was also a good fit – many people raised alarm about the dangers in the confiscation of the Corcoran’s collection, but the decision was made.

Some stills: