A dispute over 19th-century texts and old map boundaries added a legal argument to the ongoing struggle over the future of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, as arts advocates charged Tuesday that any decision to move the gallery to the suburbs would violate the Corcoran’s charter.
The meaning of the original 1869 deed and the 1870 congressional charter establishing the gallery is “unequivocal,” said Andrew Tulumello, co-partner in charge of the Washington office of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, a law firm representing the advocacy group Save the Corcoran. “Under any interpretation of the words ‘Washington City,’ it does not mean ‘Alexandria.’ ”
Corcoran executives, who announced in June that the financially struggling gallery must consider selling its historic home on 17th Street NW near the White House and perhaps moving, declined Tuesday to offer their own interpretation of the charter.
“We are reviewing the letter and discussing it with our counsel,” Mimi Carter, senior director of communications, said in an e-mailed statement. “Because we only received the letter late [Tuesday] morning, and there had been no prior discussion about its assertions even though the Corcoran has met with ‘Save the Corcoran’ and held no fewer than three community meetings, we are surprised and distressed by the many false statements and inaccuracies in the letter.”
Since June, the Corcoran has been crafting a plan to better integrate the gallery and related Corcoran College of Art & Design, reviewing offers to buy the building and scouting possible locations. Fundraising in recent years has plummeted, and annual deficits are $7 million. Corcoran officials have set no date to announce concrete plans.
Ensuring that nonprofit organizations in the District do not operate in violation of their charters falls to the office of D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan. A spokesman for Nathan said the office is monitoring the Corcoran’s planning but had no further comment.
The charter allegations are contained in a wide-ranging nine-page letter that Tulumello sent to Corcoran executives. The letter summarizes what Tulumello said was an “extensive factual investigation” — including a claim that Corcoran executives investigated sites on the Alexandria waterfront last year. In addition to raising the charter issue, the letter blames the Corcoran’s financial straits on mismanagement; disputes the need to consider moving; and questions whether the Board of Trustees is fully aware of the administrative actions taken by gallery President Fred Bollerer, Chairman Harry Hopper and chief operating officer Lauren Garcia.
“We reject all false and unfair accusations about the Corcoran and its trustees, officers and staff,” Carter said in the statement.
The letter demands that the Corcoran stop spending money and staff time exploring a move that would allegedly break the District’s law governing nonprofit organizations. And it calls for the Corcoran to add three trustees approved by Save the Corcoran to the 14-person board. The advocates set a deadline of Oct. 19 for the gallery to respond.