Group launches legal action to stop Corcoran deal


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 on April 3, 2013, in Washington, D.C. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A group of students, alumni, donors, faculty and former staff members connected to the Corcoran Gallery of Art launched a legal attack to block the arrangement to turn the Corcoran’s artworks, art college and historic building over to the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University.

The breakup plan “represents a betrayal of the Corcoran’s legacy, a dismantling of its key assets and features, and an abdication of the trustees’ role as stewards,” the group charged in legal briefs filed Wednesday in D.C. Superior Court. “The Corcoran name, and the District of Columbia, deserve better.”

The 14 plaintiffs, including the advocacy group Save the Corcoran, allege that mismanagement by the Corcoran’s trustees and executives caused the financial crisis that forced the search for a dramatic solution. Yet the gallery and its associated Corcoran College of Art and Design may yet be salvaged without being parceled out to new owners, the plaintiffs say.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the Corcoran can be saved, can succeed and thrive,” said Jayme McLellan, a plaintiff as both a faculty member and a donor of art. “It just can’t do it with this board at the helm.”

To influence the process, the group is seeking to intervene in a pending proceeding started by the Corcoran last month to obtain court approval for the new arrangement. The Corcoran must secure the permission of the court to amend its founding 1869 deed of trust to enact the deal involving the National Gallery and the university.

The so-called cy près proceeding is used when a charity can no longer operate as originally envisioned; then it can pursue the next best means of fulfilling the founding intent. The Corcoran’s lawyers have argued that the better-funded National Gallery and George Washington represent the best alternative for the artworks and the college.

“It’s not a ‘next best,’ it’s a radical change,” McLellan said. “Under this deal the trustees have put together, the Corcoran disappears in all but name only.”

“A museum that’s 150 years old deserves to be fought for in a way that I didn’t see it being fought for,” said Caroline Lacey, another plaintiff, a master’s degree candidate in new-media photojournalism. “It will say a lot about how we value art in our society, what happens to the Corcoran.”

Corcoran officials had no comment. The deal with the National Gallery and GW is contingent on a favorable cy près ruling.

Under that plan, the National Gallery would acquire most of the art at no cost, with the rest given to other institutions, in most cases local ones. The gallery would maintain exhibits in the Corcoran building. GW would take over the college and responsibility for renovating the landmark building near the White House. The Corcoran would contribute $48 million to the deal.

The challengers are represented free of charge by Andrew Tulumello, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. They must persuade Superior Court Judge Robert Okun that they have standing to enter the case. Standing is automatically granted only to Corcoran trustees and D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan, whose office regulates charities.

The briefs drafted by Tulumello argue that the plaintiffs qualify because they face specific damages from the proposed reorganization. For example, students will lose the uniqueness of a Corcoran degree once the school is integrated into GW. Donors will see their art scattered to other institutions, without regard to their wishes.

“I have every confidence we will be able to assist the court in reaching a resolution that . . . leads to a sustainable Corcoran,” Tulumello said. “Dissolving the very institution itself cannot be the right answer.”

As part of their filings, the plaintiffs also are asking Okun to:

●Order the Corcoran to provide a financial audit.

●Appoint a committee of three “respected individuals” to review operations and report on alternatives to the deal with the National Gallery and the university.

●Reject the new arrangement if evidence surfaces that the trustees’ own actions deepened the Corcoran’s troubles.

If Okun ultimately approves some form of cy près relief, the plaintiffs ask him to:

●Remove the current trustees.

●Order that all the art, not just the pieces “cherry-picked by the National Gallery,” remain in Washington.

●Order that local artists continue to be provided space to show work in the building.

“If it’s going to be dissolved in this cy près,” Lacey said, “then we the students and, more importantly, the public deserve to understand every wrong turn so we make sure this doesn’t happen to another historic institution.”

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He writes general features, profiles and arts stories for the Sunday Magazine and Style, including pieces on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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