Corcoran, University of Maryland agree to explore partnership


Corcoran College of Art and Design students protest outside a law firm at 15th and I Streets NW where they thought the board of trustees was meeting Wednesday in Washington. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

In the remarkably drawn-out sweepstakes to see what savior might be tapped to help save the financially struggling Corcoran Gallery of Art, the winner is: the University of Maryland.

The Corcoran’s board of trustees voted, 13 to 0, Wednesday afternoon to sign a preliminary agreement to explore a long-term partnership with Maryland that could include shared faculty; joint student degrees; cooperation on developing new courses; pairing interdisciplinary teams of artists, engineers and computer scientists on projects; and expansion of the Corcoran College of Art and Design by several hundred students, Corcoran and Maryland officials said.

The arrangement would benefit the gallery side of the hybrid Corcoran, as well, with the university sharing some operational costs and giving Corcoran fundraisers access to Maryland alumni donors.

Corcoran Chairman Harry Hopper declined to estimate the exact financial gain the Corcoran could expect but said the “synergies are dramatic. . . . This is a major step forward, and can lead to a sustainable future for both the college and the gallery.”

A Maryland official said that the university would be willing to commit unspecified resources to the partnership. But before it can take effect, the parties must hammer out a detailed legal agreement, which could be signed this summer.

The announcement points the way to possible closure to a trying period for the Corcoran and its supporters. Despite heavy skepticism from detractors, the trustees stuck to their painstaking — critics said plodding — search for a solution.

Money is critical, because the Corcoran has been running operating deficits of about $7 million a year on a $32 million budget. Its very survival in Washington has been at stake in the past year, as trustees considered radical rescue plans, including selling the landmark Beaux-Arts building near the White House and moving to the suburbs.

The agreement with Maryland explicitly states that the gallery and the college would remain in Washington and that Corcoran students would still receive Corcoran undergraduate and graduate degrees.

“It’s not a merger, nor is it a takeover,” said Frederick Knops, a Corcoran trustee who served on the trustee committee that sifted various partnership opportunities in the past several months.

What’s in the deal for Maryland is the potential fulfillment of President Wallace Loh’s ambition to expand the university's offerings and influence in the creative arts, a standing priority of the public research university with more than 37,000 students. The university has programs in art, art history and performing arts, and is “prominent” in fields that integrate art and design, such as architecture, engineering and journalism, Loh wrote in a letter to the university community Wednesday.

“We will gain a physical footprint in a historic landmark, magnifying our presence in the nation’s capital,” Loh wrote. “The combined and complementary strengths of our respective institutions could lead to transformative excellence in education, scholarship and exhibitions in ways that would benefit our entire University, the region and beyond.”

Under the agreement, Maryland could also nominate trustees and thus influence the direction of the Corcoran. The Corcoran board has 13 voting members and four unfilled openings.

The museum’s trustees meeting took place as Corcoran students protested outside the museum’s law firm on 15th Street NW, where they presumed the trustees had gathered. “Keep the Corcoran independent!” they chanted. The trustees met at Elizabeth’s cafe on L Street NW.

“Students have no voice and no say, and they pay millions to keep the Corcoran going,” said senior photography student Tom Pullin.

There are no perfect analogies to such an arrangement between a university and a gallery/college, where each remains basically independent, Hopper said. Loh noted some near-parallel cases, including the relationship Johns Hopkins University established with the Peabody Conservatory of Music decades ago; a partnership between UCLA and the Hammer Museum of Art; and recent talk of the University of Southern California working with the Museum of Contemporary Art of Los Angeles.

However, in the case of the Peabody and the Hammer, those institutions have become units of their respective universities. A Peabody degree is simultaneously a Johns Hopkins degree, according to Peabody’s Web site.

“I do not” envision the Corcoran similarly becoming a unit of Maryland, Loh said in a news conference Wednesday evening. “The Corcoran is far larger in scale than either of those two institutions.” In the case of the Peabody and Johns Hopkins, Loh added, “there were 20 years of partnership before that happened.”

Hopper said that trustees proposed by Maryland, and voted onto the Corcoran board, would be legally bound to follow the original deed and trust of the Corcoran, which make no mention of being part of a Maryland university.

The announcement failed to mollify some critics of the Corcoran leadership’s stewardship.

“I can give you 2 billion reasons it helps the University of Maryland,” Wayne Reynolds, a former chairman of Ford’s Theatre, said of the estimated value of the Corcoran art collection. “I can’t give you one good reason it helps the Corcoran.”

Reynolds had put himself forward as a potential chairman to save the Corcoran.

The advocacy group Save the Corcoran issued a statement opposing the plan, saying it could lead to the Corcoran losing its independence.

“I think 20 years from now the Corcoran is going to be the University of Maryland 17th Street campus,” said Terrance Shanahan, a member of Save the Corcoran.

Large questions remain about how — or even if — the partnership will evolve. The three-page memorandum of understanding depends on detailed legal negotiations concluding successfully.

University officials will have to bring the final agreement to the board of regents. They might have to make the case for how partnering with a troubled Washington art gallery and school is advantageous to Maryland taxpayers.

A Maryland official said if the partnership benefits Maryland students and faculty, then it will serve the university’s mission.

“It seems like a great idea to explore, but the devil is in the details,” said Maryland Sen. James Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), a former university regent now on a Senate committee that works on education. “The issues are, to what extent do the missions overlap? . . . The other issue — follow-the-money — [is that] some kind of a partnership would need to be financially viable for both.”

At the same time, the Corcoran made three other significant announcements:

It reached an agreement with the National Gallery of Art to exhibit works from the National Gallery’s East Wing during the three-year period, beginning in January, when the East Wing is closed for renovation.

The Corcoran named a new consulting director to succeed retiring director Fred Bollerer. She is Peggy Loar, who has a range of museum experience, including having been director of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Loar will serve at the Corcoran for at least several months as the partnership with Maryland is established, Hopper said.

Finally — and perhaps most vitally — the Corcoran released a “Strategic Framework for a New Corcoran,” a 10-page document (also to be posted online Wednesday evening) that is the distilled fruit of two years of methodical research and some $1.5 million in consultant fees. It is the long-awaited new road map for an institution that has been casting about for an updated vision for decades, as it lagged behind publicly funded museum rivals in Washington.

“We want this to provide . . . a context for who our next director might be, or future board members,” Knops said. “It’s predicated on the need to define how can we take this 140-year-old institution and make sure it has another 140 years ahead of it.”

The framework reaffirms certain key facets of its identity since its founding in 1869 by financier William Corcoran — the encouragement and reflection of “American genius,” and the unique-in-Washington status of being a museum-college hybrid.

But it charts a new focus on contemporary art, American art, and design. Works that don’t seem relevant to that framework could be sold, with the proceeds used to acquire works that are relevant to the focus.

The Corcoran will revive its defunct biennial show, which once was a revered taste-making event in the national art world.

The Corcoran will also establish a center for “lens-based and new media,” meaning photography and technology-based art forms. The Corcoran already has an admired photography collection, and the partnership with Maryland could lead across new frontiers in the digital arts, Corcoran officials said.

The framework also calls for the Corcoran to redouble its outreach to embrace the Washington region. And it calls for the Corcoran to make itself more “relevant” to the political and cultural dialogue that are essential characteristics of Washington’s intellectual life.

With the framework as a guide, there are early signs that the Corcoran is getting its groove back. Exhibits like “Pump Me Up” have generated buzz. And after two years of fundraising stuck at a historically low $3.2 million, the Corcoran has hired three major-gift officers and a membership director to help turn the tide.

Knops cited exhibits such as “30 Americans” and the upcoming “War/Photography” as examples in which the Corcoran has sought to “sharpen our focus on being relevant in what we exhibit and teach, and how we exhibit and teach it through the integration of art ideas and social issues.”

“Art is provocative,” Hopper said. “And we want to take the provocation and promote dialogue around it.”

Katherine Boyle contributed to this report.

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He currently writes general features and profiles for the Sunday Magazine, Sunday Style and Sunday Arts, with a focus on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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