D.C. judge grills lawyers for the Corcoran and Save the Corcoran over breakup plan

Lawyers for the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the advocacy group Save the Corcoran scarcely got to make their arguments over the Corcoran’s future Friday afternoon because D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Okun had so many questions he wanted to ask first.

Okun grilled them for 90 minutes, along with a lawyer from the D.C. attorney general’s office. The judge was probing for facts and legal precedents regarding the Corcoran’s drastic plan to dissolve itself, give the artworks to the National Gallery of Art and turn over the Corcoran College of Art and Design to George Washington University.

The tenor of Okun’s questions did not signal where his sympathies may lean, but his sheer inquisitiveness suggested he wants to know more. That would be good news for Save the Corcoran, which is asking the judge to direct the Corcoran to disclose more information to prove its claim that the reorganization is necessary.

The crowd of spectators was so large — all 56 seats filled, plus two dozen people standing along the walls — that Okun invited folks to settle in the jury box as well.

The judge said he would rule Monday morning on Save the Corcoran’s request to be granted standing to participate in the case. So far, only the Corcoran and the District are parties — and they are on the same side: Both are asking the judge to allow the Corcoran to amend its founding charter to permit the new arrangement.

If Okun admits Save the Corcoran, then the adversarial parties would litigate the question of whether the Corcoran should be able to revise its charter. Witnesses could be called.

Save the Corcoran has argued in legal briefs that breaking up the Corcoran is unnecessary. Further, the group claims it can show that mismanagement caused the crisis. If so, the court cannot bail out the Corcoran’s leaders by permitting the dissolution of the institution, according to Save the Corcoran’s attorney, Andrew Tulumello.

Corcoran attorney Charles Patrizia said the critics don’t appreciate that stabilizing the finances of the college and the gallery, and renovating the landmark building near the White House, would cost “hundreds of millions of dollars” that the Corcoran doesn’t have and can’t raise.

At the start of the hearing, Okun disclosed that his wife works at GWU but that her status would be unaffected by his ruling either way. He asked whether any of the attorneys objected to his hearing the case. None did.

David Montgomery 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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