August 7, 2012

AS THE OLDEST private art museum in the District, the Corcoran Gallery of Art caused quite a stir earlier this summer when it announced the possibility of a move from its historic Beaux-Arts palazzo across from the White House. The perennially under-funded museum posted a $7.2 million deficit for the fiscal year that ended in June 2011 and told The Post two months ago that the cost of maintaining its flagship could reach more than $130 million. Hence the controversial decision to consider a move to “a purpose-built, technologically advanced, flexible, multipurpose facility” in the suburbs.

The possibility of such a move, however, may prove more complicated than the museum’s board of trustees anticipated.

The Corcoran is a nonprofit organization and, as such, would be subject to the District’s nonprofit corporation law. According to that law, the attorney general is authorized to bring action in D.C. Superior Court against any organization that “has continued to act contrary to its nonprofit purposes.” In the Corcoran’s case, there’s an argument to be made that those “nonprofit purposes” have a lot to do with its particular location in the District itself. Although it’s true that William Wilson Corcoran imagined a museum “dedicated to art” that would be “used solely for the purpose of encouraging American genius,” the preamble to the Corcoran’s 1869 deed nevertheless explicitly mentions “an institution in Washington City.” Along the same lines, the act of Congress that incorporated the Corcoran the following year also mentions the museum’s location in “Washington county, District of Columbia.”

Last week, the Attorney General’s Office said that it’s now “looking into the issues involved in Corcoran’s possible move.” Of course, the Corcoran hasn’t yet officially announced if or when it will leave the District, but it’s now apparent that there could be a struggle should its trustees ultimately make that decision.

Another struggle is exactly what the Corcoran doesn’t need. The museum is still recovering from its decision to cancel a controversial Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition in 1989 and its failure to raise sufficient funds for a Frank Gehry expansion in 2005. Regardless of the authority the attorney general may have, the Corcoran’s trustees should be allowed to do what’s best for the future of the museum without any additional distractions — even if it means leaving the District.

Naturally, abandoning Ernest Flagg’s marble masterpiece at the corner of 17th Street and New York Avenue NW should be a last resort, and — if they have to sell — the Corcoran’s trustees should do everything in their power to ensure that the building remains “dedicated to art.” But whatever decision they make in the end, it should be theirs and theirs alone.