Petition about Corcoran Gallery of Art should be heard for transparency’s sake


A marble sculpture, “The Sons of God Saw the Daughters of Men That They Were Fair,” by Daniel Chester French, 1923, on the grand staircase of the 19th century Corcoran Gallery of art building in Washington, D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

A motion filed Wednesday to stop the dismemberment of the Corcoran Gallery of Art should be given serious consideration by D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Okun. The integrity of any final dispensation of the Corcoran depends on several key points raised by the petitioners, which include the advocacy group Save the Corcoran and more than a dozen other plaintiffs.

The group seeks standing to stop, or at least influence, the pending division of the Corcoran between the National Gallery of Art (which will cherry-pick the art and dispose of what it deems unworthy of its care) and George Washington University (which will absorb the art school and take over the Corcoran building on 17th Street NW). A simple dismissal of their right to be heard will render any subsequent decision in the case illegitimate in the eyes of many Washingtonians, including much of the local arts community. Artists are essential to the cultural and economic vitality of the District, and they are arguing, in clear and compelling terms, that tearing up William Corcoran’s deed is bad for the sector they represent. And that’s bad for all of us.

The most important elements of the documents have to do with persistent and unanswered questions about how the Corcoran’s finances reached such a lamentable state over the past several years. The petition calls for transparency, and without transparency, the destruction of the Corcoran will always be lamented and will alienate many artists and art lovers from the court and city government charged with the protection of the people’s interests. The District’s attorney general represents not merely the powerful and influential but also the interests of artists, including the many local alumni, students and staff of the Corcoran. If he is inclined to be awed by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, he should study the wide and robust literature that documents the economic impact of local artists, who will be significantly damaged if the Corcoran loses its local flavor and its historic commitment to local creativity.

Without transparency — without a full audit and an independent committee to review the true state of affairs behind the current board’s Iron Curtain secrecy — the division of the Corcoran will also damage the institutions that now undertake its demise. The National Gallery of Art seems entirely unaware of the opprobrium it will earn if it continues to pursue the death of the Corcoran as an independent institution. George Washington University is more than used to being seen as a bad neighbor, rapacious in its real estate dealings, more concerned with investments and huge tuition fees than the idealism that once fueled the mission of the academy. Yet both institutions will suffer unless the public can be absolutely certain that there were no other options to keep the Corcoran’s art in Washington and some vestige of its school here, too.

Unfortunately, the closed dealings of Corcoran’s leadership will cast a shadow on the supposed rescue efforts of the National Gallery of Art and GWU. They simply can’t go forward if the general public believes this deal was cooked up in the cultural version of a smoky backroom.

The petition asks for openness and full accountability: We need to know if the people who seek to undo the Corcoran trust are doing it in good faith; we need to know whether the current Corcoran leadership has always intended to surrender the institution to other parties; we need to know who was present and what was said, as the Corcoran’s board considered then rejected two previous ideas to fundamentally change the institution’s mission, the ill-advised plan to move out of the current building announced in June 2012, and the subsequent effort to form an alliance with the University of Maryland.

Without that information, no decision of the court is valid, at least not in any sense that matters. Okun will preside over a decision that far transcends the legal niceties in the documents filed Wednesday. He will render a verdict on how we relate to culture, whether venerable institutions with deep roots in the community are simply assets and infrastructure, or whether the public’s long and diligent investment in an institution like the Corcoran makes it more than a building, more than an art collection and more than a school. He will decide whether culture is autochthonous and organically related to the community, or merely a fiction our supposed stewards of culture use to hide their real ambition: to acquire more things, more land, more status and more influence.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Entertainment