The Corcoran Should Remain Intact. Here’s Why.


Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.  (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf, File)

Last week’s court hearings, which will determine whether the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University will be allowed to shred the deed of William Wilson Corcoran, and lay claim to the gallery’s art, its building and the college of art and design housed therein, recalled a macabre phenomenon from the world of architecture and preservation: demolition by neglect. Advocates of undoing his legacy and dismantling the Corcoran argued in D.C. Superior Court that there are no reasonable alternatives other than to divvy up its assets among the two, larger, better-funded and more successful cultural institutions.

Or: We have let things get so bad, please let us tear it down.  The “new” Corcoran–it would exist in name only–would be a farce for anyone who knows what makes the old one meaningful and unique: The museum would cease to be a museum (letting its suitors pocket money earned from selling art); its collection would be given to the National Gallery; and the college would come under the aegis of a real-estate development company which also runs a university not exactly known for its depth or breadth in the creative arts. Technically, a shell of the Corcoran would continue to exist, merely to maintain the Orwellian fiction that the Corcoran hasn’t died, it’s just found new “partners.”

During the hearings, however, much of what has been darkly rumored for years became all too painfully clear: The leadership of the Corcoran has been shamefully negligent, failing to raise funds and neglecting to consider at least two serious alternatives for survival that would have allowed it to remain as is, an independent museum with an organically connected college. They have been bad stewards of one of this region’s oldest and most beloved cultural institutions. And it didn’t have to happen this way.

The Corcoran courted, then rejected efforts by philanthropist Wayne Reynolds to put it on sound financial footing and redefine its mission in a way compatible with the deed yet alert to new possibilities. They also courted, then rejected, the University of Maryland, which offered a more paternalistic relationship, yet also one that would have kept the institution in a form that William Corcoran would recognize, while infusing new funds and administrative energies into its governance.

During all this courting and rejecting, they paid little attention to the basics of annual fundraising. So of course they ended up in dire condition.  Now, they argue, they have no other alternatives. But this isn’t last call at a cheap bar. The court turned the lights on, and surprise, there are still willing suitors who promise to respect and nurture the institution in essentially the same form that Corcoran envisioned.

Demolition by neglect is insidious because it allows property owners to evade their responsibilities and then, all too often, rewards them for doing so. The analogy isn’t perfect—developers often profit from this odious tactic, and no one is accusing the Corcoran’s leaders of trying to do that. But it applies to the Corcoran situation in this sense: After allowing the Corcoran to deteriorate, after turning away serious and meaningful offers to keep it alive and independent, the Corcoran board and leadership now want to be given the right to make a final decision about what happens to the remains of the Corcoran.

They do not deserve to make that decision. They have not served the Corcoran well. They have failed in their responsibilities. Rewarding that kind of failure would potentially discourage future Mr. Corcoran’s from endowing similar institutions; and it would encourage mediocre boards to neglect their duties, and put expediency over stewardship.

The demolition by neglect argument is also useful for sorting through the ethical quandary presented by the sale of Corcoran assets (including one of the world’s most sought-after rugs). The use of such funds for anything other than purchase of more art is a powerful and important taboo in the museum world. So the Corcoran’s leaders  intend a sleight of hand, they will redefine the museum as no longer a museum, hand over the money, and no taboos will be violated. This is the most cynical casuistry. A property owner who has allowed an historic building to deteriorate should not then be allowed to determine where money made from selling off the lumber, the copper fittings and marble mantlepiece goes. That money should be put in the hands of preservationists, people who intend to do everything possible to save the property.

Luckily, there are still such people ready and willing to help. Neither of the two parties that made reasonable offers to maintain the independence of the Corcoran and the substance of Corcoran’s deed, have been driven away. Reynolds, and the University of Maryland, both affirmed that they are willing to come back to the table, and keep talking. Both parties have demonstrated that the Corcoran leadership’s argument about fundraising—it just can’t be done—is banal and manifestly untrue. There is more than a reasonable expectation that both parties could save the Corcoran in the form that William Corcoran intended.

Judge Robert Okun should give them the chance to do what the Corcoran’s leadership absurdly claims is impossible. There is no need to grant the cy pres petition to break up the Corcoran.

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.

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Bethonie Butler · August 5, 2014