What you need to know as the fate of the Corcoran Gallery is argued in court


Visitors at the Corcoran Gallery of Art enjoyed the colorful interactive art installation called "Loop 2000” on July 26. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The legal term for the high-stakes drama opening Monday in Courtroom 317 of D.C. Superior Court is “cy près,” and the English pronunciation seems apt:

Sigh, pray.

The future of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran College of Art and Design is now in the hands of the lawyers and of Judge Robert Okun. Whether you’re a partisan of one of the two competing visions for Washington’s oldest private art institution or you just want whatever’s best, it’s a tense time.

Things are going to get technical, and maybe testy, during the evidentiary hearing, which could last through Thursday. It will have the flavor of a mini-trial, with witnesses and cross-examination.

Here’s a tip sheet to the action:


There was a steady flow of visitors at the Corcoran on July 26. They were the sort of crowds that might have helped the Corocoran to survive had they been this consistent over the years. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Why is the Corcoran in court?

The Corcoran’s trustees need the court’s permission to revise founder William Corcoran’s 1869 charter so they can implement a drastic solution to years of financial struggles: They propose to give much of the art to the National Gallery of Art and to turn over the college to George Washington University. The trustees say those well-endowed caretakers can better accomplish William Corcoran’s vision. GWU would renovate the landmark building near the White House. Otherwise, the trustees say, the Corcoran can’t afford to run the gallery and support the college.

Who objects?

Seven students, a faculty member and a gallery employee — drawn from the advocacy group Save the Corcoran, and represented by STC’s lawyer — insist there’s no reason to dissolve the Corcoran. They say the Corcoran can thrive independently.

This argument has been going on for two years — what’s new?

Finally, an astounding volume of passionate assertion, opinion, rhetoric, rumor and spin — on all sides — is going to be subject to courtroom standards of fact and evidence. The Corcoran must prove that it is no longer possible or practicable to carry on as is. And it must prove that the GWU-NGA deal is the closest alternative — which is the definition of the ancient legal doctrine of cy près, or “so close.”

Is the claim that Corcoran leaders’ mismanagement wrecked the place relevant?

Yes. Evidence of “deliberate acts” that caused the crisis could affect the court’s decision, Okun said in court last week. But mere disagreement with management decisions is not sufficient. The opponents said they will likely call the board of trustees’ chairman, Harry F. Hopper III, to testify about the trustees’ actions.

What is arts patron Wayne Reynolds doing back in all this?

“I never left,” said the energetic former chairman of Ford’s Theatre, where he broke fundraising records with a $54 million capital campaign. Reynolds made an un­or­tho­dox pitch to take over the Corcoran early last year. At first, he was courted by Corcoran trustees; then he was rebuffed. Save the Corcoran promoted him in vain as a good candidate for chairman. Last week, his name surfaced in a Save the Corcoran legal brief, held out as someone who could assist the court in understanding alternatives to dissolving the Corcoran.

Reynolds and a Save the Corcoran representative said in interviews that Reynolds is not financing the legal effort or participating in legal strategy. However, he remains the white knight that Save the Corcoran would call upon if a victory in court gave the group leverage to have a say in the leadership of the Corcoran.

“I hope to have the opportunity to lead the institution and create a new board that would reimagine the Corcoran,” Reynolds said.

“We needed somebody who had a proven track record who could really turn the place around,” said Jayme McLellan, an organizer of Save the Corcoran.

Reynolds may be called to testify.

Will art be sold to raise cash for other purposes?

It’s taboo in the art world, so naturally each side is accusing the other of just that.

Under the reorganization plan, the NGA would have first choice of artworks, getting them for free. Other institutions in Washington, with few exceptions, would take the rest.

However, the opponents point out, the Corcoran raised nearly $40 million from the sale of Persian rugs last year, and much of that money would go to GWU to help renovate the building. Is that the equivalent of selling art for bricks and mortar? Also, the opponents cite legal filings in which the Corcoran acknowledges “borrowing” money from art sales to cover operations and paying it back. Nevertheless, the two main art museum watchdog groups, the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors — which are quick to impose sanctions on museums that sell art to pay for operations — have given their blessing to the breakup plan.

Meanwhile, the Corcoran argues that if its opponents prevail, art will have to be sold to raise money to keep the doors open. If art is sold for that purpose, the museum’s lawyer asserts, the Corcoran will face sanctions and lose its reputation.

The opponents filed a legal brief saying that a restricted sale of art is preferable to dissolving the institution. Moreover, in the past, Reynolds has shrugged off the consequences of selling art. But in interviews, opponents deny that’s their long-term plan.

“Selling art and living on the money is not a solution,” McLellan said. “We want to move forward within the guidelines of all accrediting bodies.”

One thing’s sure in a big legal fight — the lawyers will be paid. Correct?

Not this time! The lead attorneys on both sides are doing the work pro bono.

Charles “Chuck” Patrizia, a partner in the litigation practice of Paul Hastings, has been representing the Corcoran for several years in a number of matters, including the recent settlement of the estate of Corcoran benefactor Huguette Clark. Patrizia’s specialties for paying work include environmental and energy law.

Andrew “Drew” Tulumello, a partner with Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, was introduced to Save the Corcoran by a mutual acquaintance two years ago. He is a general commercial litigator whose specialties include defending companies against class-action suits. In the Corcoran duel, he scored the first victory by persuading the court last week that the opponents have standing to present their case.

It’s Harvard Law (Tulumello ’96) v. Yale Law (Patrizia ’75).

What about the art, students and GWU/NGA deal?

The deal is contingent on the Corcoran’s winning cy près approval. The terms were finalized in mid-May. The formal closing of the deal is set for no sooner than Aug. 12.

For the school year to begin as smoothly as possible, university planners could not wait to begin laying the groundwork. The art school will be known as the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, within GWU's Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. Most classes will be taught in the Corcoran building. Tuition will remain roughly the same for current Corcoran students.

Under the deal, the art would remain on display until about Oct. 1, when the gallery side of the building would close for renovations for an unspecified period. Curators from the NGA and the Corcoran have begun to inventory the 17,000 artworks, so the NGA can decide what it wants. The plan is for contemporary work to be shown in the building, alongside a “legacy” gallery of works especially associated with the Corcoran.

If the cy près petition is turned down, and the deal falls through, predictions of the consequences range from apocalyptic to euphoric. Stay tuned.

How can I watch the action?

The show begins at 2 p.m. Monday in the courthouse at 500 Indiana Ave. NW (Judiciary Square Metro) and is scheduled to continue at 10 a.m. the following three days, if necessary. Get there early. The two previous hearings have been standing-room-only.

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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