Philanthropist Wayne Reynolds, the star witness for the group trying to block the plan to break up the Corcoran Gallery of Art, led a packed courtroom Wednesday on a rollicking and highly critical narrative account of his interactions with gallery leadership, at one point likening the Corcoran’s executive suite to “a goat rodeo,” and asserting that he could do better, if given a chance.
“You can’t close a $2 million to $5 million [budget] gap at an institution like this?” he said. “I could do it at a dinner party.”
Since the Corcoran’s agonies emerged two years ago with word of a plan to consider selling the 1897 landmark building near the White House, Reynolds, the irrepressible former chairman of Ford’s Theatre, has played the role of potential white knight and also wild card — two roles he reprised with gusto at the evidentiary hearing in D.C. Superior Court.
“My wife told me before I came here, ‘Please be a little less enthusiastic,’ ” he said apologetically when the court reporter said she could not keep up with his verbal torrent.
Reynolds’s testimony came the day after the Corcoran rested its case seeking court approval to revise its founding charter to reorganize by giving the bulk of the art to the National Gallery of Art, and turning over the Corcoran College of Art and Design to George Washington University.
Reynolds’s wife is philanthropist Catherine Reynolds, and with the proceeds of the sale of her education loan company in 2000, the couple has given $100 million to cultural and educational institutions since then. As chairman of Ford’s, Reynolds led a record-breaking capital campaign to raise more than $50 million.
Last year, Reynolds campaigned publicly to become chairman of the Corcoran. At first he was courted by Corcoran leaders, then he was rebuffed, and he made common cause with the advocacy group Save the Corcoran. Now, in court, Andrew Tulumello, the lawyer for Save the Corcoran, said that Reynolds is the heart of his case to show there are alternatives to the plan to dissolve the Corcoran.
“I know [that] within 18 months of becoming chairman of the Corcoran, the Corcoran will start making money,” Reynolds said. “The Corcoran will be thriving; the number of students will be going up. We’ll be renovating the building. We’ll become the showcase of arts education if not just in D.C., then in the whole country.”
The questions from Tulumello did not prompt Reynolds for many specifics — and the day ended before he could be cross-examined by Corcoran lawyer Charles Patrizia.
But Reynolds said he would jump-start fundraising and triple the board of directors to 40 members if necessary to attract more talent and high-net-worth donors.
Tulumello produced a list of 23 “Alternative Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art” that Reynolds put together on short notice after a pre-hearing request from the office of the D.C. attorney general, also a party to the case.
The list included Marcus Brauchli, former executive editor of The Washington Post and at present a consultant with Graham Holdings. Brauchli did not immediately respond to e-mail and telephone requests for comment.
The list also included such donors and power players as Buffy Cafritz; Linda Daschle; Kenneth Duberstein; Susan Molinari; Frank Connor III; William “Billy” Martin; Catherine Merrill Williams, president and publisher of Washingtonian magazine; and former D.C. mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Reynolds said he had received confirmation that they would help. He said that he would have presented more names but that several potential supporters have ties to GWU or the NGA and did not want to be identified.
Reynolds also said he was in favor of selling some of the art “nobody ever sees” to raise money that would primarily be used to purchase contemporary artwork.
The Corcoran has claimed that Reynolds’s camp actually would have to sell art to keep the gallery running. In earlier testimony Wednesday, Corcoran Chairman Harry F. Hopper III said that selling art for operations was “the third rail” in the art world and that doing so would hurt the Corcoran’s reputation with donors and art professionals. “I don’t think Mr. Corcoran’s vision was to have a pariah organization,” Hopper said.
Reynolds cheerfully told many tales out of school, including how Dodge Thompson, chief of exhibitions at the NGA, helped introduce Reynolds to Corcoran leaders at the elegant Italian restaurant Fiola in late 2012. According to Reynolds, Thompson was already angling for the Corcoran’s distinguished collection of 19th-century American art so that “his collection at the National Gallery would be greater than the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
“That’s laudable for a curator,” Reynolds said. But “doing the right things for the right reasons is good, too.”
Thompson, who was in the courtroom, said afterward that he had no comment.
Reynolds seemed moved as he gave an impromptu disquisition on financier William W. Corcoran, who founded the gallery in 1869 “for the purpose of encouraging American genius.”
“I feel like he was speaking to me,” said Reynolds, who also runs the Academy of Achievement, which puts talented young people in touch with adult achievers. “This is my life, encouraging American genius.”
Earlier, Hopper’s testimony presented the case in favor of the arrangement with the university and the NGA. “The path to sustainability is one we have worked hard to pursue for many years,” he said.
On Wednesday evening, the Corcoran released a report from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits the school, saying that the “college lacks the resources to operate much beyond the next academic year” and that being absorbed into GWU “would be an outstanding outcome.”