The Corcoran Gallery of Art and The Corcoran School of Art and Design are located at 500 17th Street NW, at the intersection of 17th Street and New York Avenue, one block south and west of the White House in Washington DC.

One of the oldest museums in the United States and the first in Washington DC, it is the largest non-federal art museum in a city dominated by federal museums. It was founded in 1869 to house the artworks collected by banker William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888).

Originally, the museum was housed in a building two blocks away, now the Renwick Gallery. In 1897, the current building was completed. It was designed by architect Ernest Flagg and is in the Beaux-Arts style. An addition designed by Charles Platt was added in 1925. Currently, a second wing is being planned, and the museum has commissioned the current star of contemporary architecture, Frank Gehry

The Corcoran has a large permanent collection, especially American 19th century art. Artists featured include Alfred Bierstadt (The Last of the Buffalo), Mary Cassatt, Frederick Church (Niagara Falls), Thomas Cole, Richard Diebenkorn, Marsden Hartley, John Kensett, Samuel Morse, John Singer Sargent, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Another notable holding is the Salon Doré, an entire 18th century French room taken from ParisHôtel de Clermont.

Unlike many prominent DC museums, the Corcoran regularly features exhibitions of challenging new art. In 1989, one of these exhibitions was of the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit work, along with Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, was one of the chief catalysts for the NEA controversies of the late 80s and early 90s. Despite the fact that the Corcoran received no money from the NEA for this show (the NEA money went to the University of Pennsylvania who curated the travelling show), Congressman Richard Armey led the charge of the Philistines and prodded 107 other Congressmen into signing a letter of protest sent to the NEA.

Other museums featured the show without incident (except for that pesky obscenity trial when the show appeared at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, but that would come later), but the director of the Corcoran, Christina Orr-Cahall, was unable to take the heat in the museum’s own backyard and caved by canceling the show. Washington artists retaliated by showing slides of Mapplethorpe’s explicit photos on the walls of the Corcoran, in full view of the White House. President Bush must have enjoyed the show. Orr-Cahall was canned and is currently in art world exile, serving as director of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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