April 10, 2013

SHOULD MARYLAND’S flagship public university commit resources to help a private art gallery in the District of Columbia? Should that art institution worry about the possible loss of independence and its valuable assets? Those are just two of the issues raised by the proposed partnership between the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the University of Maryland.

It’s intriguing to think that collaboration between these two institutions would strengthen both. But it’s also important that the proposal be fully and openly vetted for all possible benefits and drawbacks.

Corcoran’s board of trustees has entered into a memorandum of understanding with Maryland to explore a long-term partnership as a way out of the Corcoran’s well-chronicled financial troubles. At one point last year the board said it was considering relocation and possible sale of its iconic building near the White House. It backed down in the face of public outcry and has struggled to come up with a way forward. A bid by Washington philanthropist Wayne Reynolds, who successfully turned around Ford’s Theatre, to take over leadership at the Corcoran and use his considerable contacts to transform it into a creative center dedicated to art and arts education was rebuffed.

The agreement with Maryland, signed this month, broadly sketches an arrangement by which the Corcoran would benefit from the university’s management expertise, financial strengths and efficiency of operation while Maryland would gain a physical footprint in the nation’s capital and access to the gallery’s vaunted collection. Among the possible outcomes: an expansion of the Corcoran College of Art and Design with shared faculty, joint student degrees, interdisciplinary cooperation on art and design projects and development of new courses.

The agreement states that the gallery and the college would remain in the District, but critics nonetheless worry about the Corcoran being subsumed by Maryland. The three-page document is short on details. Does access to the Corcoran collection — estimated at $2 billion — mean parts of it will be sold off or transferred to Maryland? Does Maryland’s reported willingness to commit unspecified resources mean it will be on the hook for the $130 million worth of needed building renovations?

Maryland has formed a task force; the Corcoran has hired a consulting director to aid in the discussions, and the promise is to consult all stakeholders as these and other issues are worked out. The hope is to reach a legal agreement no later than the end of this summer that would be subject to approval by Corcoran trustees and Maryland regents. Before anything is finalized, the public should be given a full understanding of what is proposed.