Corcoran maneuvers to keep its art from leaving the area


Eileen McCrory, who visiting from England, walks toward the entrance of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, Thursday, May 15, 2014. Washington’s oldest private art museum located near the White House will have a very different future. Plans are now finalized for the long-struggling Corcoran Gallery of Art to be taken over by George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf) (Kevin Wolf/AP)

The Corcoran Gallery of Art is taking steps to guarantee that most of its 17,000 artworks will remain in the Washington area and that the historic building near the White House always will display art, under the plan to turn over operations to George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art.

Legal papers filed by the Corcoran this week in D.C. Superior Court also show that the D.C. Attorney General’s Office is keeping a close watch over the dissolution of Washington’s oldest private art gallery and art college, which was announced earlier this year.

Included in the 204 pages of mostly technical contract language is a side- letter signed by leaders of the Corcoran and the National Gallery spelling out that the gallery will have first dibs on the Corcoran collection. The museum’s holdings are admired for their breadth of American and contemporary art, photography, European painting, sculpture and decorative arts. Any works not chosen by the gallery will be offered to D.C. museums or other public institutions. An exception will be made for works that, for a unique reason, seem better suited to a gallery outside Washington.

If no museum, university or public building in the city wants a work, it may be offered outside the city, starting within a 50-mile radius, and then beyond. The attorney general must approve any transfer of art outside the city.

There would be no charge for the artworks, but recipients would have to pay for shipping and insurance and would have to show that they could take care of the art. The process of deciding what works go where will not begin until the deal closes, no sooner than mid-August.

In a separate side-letter, the Corcoran and the university stipulated that the university promises to maintain about 14,000 square feet of gallery space open to the public in the Beaux-Arts landmark on 17th Street NW. Such a promise is a fail-safe in the event that, for some reason, the National Gallery ends its announced commitment to maintain that gallery space.

There is no hint in the documents that any of the three parties is getting cold feet over the dramatic reconfiguration of the gallery and the Corcoran College of Art and Design. Under the plan, the university will take over the college and the building; the National Gallery will get most of the art. The Corcoran will continue as a much smaller nonprofit organization devoted to art and will kick in $48 million to help pay for building renovations and care of the art.

The Corcoran’s court motion comes under the ancient legal doctrine of “cy près,” by which a court can modify restrictions placed on a charity when the charitable purpose becomes impossible to achieve. The gallery’s lawyers argue in the legal filing that chronic deficits and competition from free museums — notably the National Gallery — have doomed the Corcoran in its current form.

The Corcoran submitted annual budget summaries to the court, showing that it ran deficits in 11 of the past 13 years, including $5.5 million last year and $9.2 million in 2012.

“It is financially impracticable, and indeed in the medium- and longer-term, financially impossible, to continue the operations of the gallery and college in their current form,” Corcoran’s attorneys said in their brief.

So the Corcoran is asking the court to modify its founding 1869 deed and charter to enable the new arrangement. Those documents launched a gallery, and, in 1890, a college, and did not foresee the gallery and college being given to others. The reorganization is the next best way to fulfill the original vision, the lawyers argue.

The attorney general’s office oversees charitable institutions and is a party in the cy près proceeding. Superior Court Judge Robert Okun will have the final say, but to try to win the attorney general as an ally, the Corcoran has been sharing relevant documents for weeks.

The attorney general’s office requested the side-letter on keeping art in the building “as a condition to supporting the Corcoran’s position,” according to the letter.

A spokesman for D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan and a spokeswoman for the Corcoran said they would have no comment beyond what is in the court filing.

Nathan’s office invited anyone with comments on the Corcoran’s request to submit them in writing to the office and to the Corcoran’s attorneys. (Addresses for both, and a link to the documents, are at: bit.ly/corcoranpetition )

A court hearing is scheduled for July 18. The entire plan involving the National Gallery and the university is contingent on approval of the cy près request.

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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