Lawyers wrestling over the fate of the Corcoran Gallery presented starkly different paths to salvation for Washington’s oldest arts institution in spirited closing arguments Wednesday. They warned that “destruction,” “immolation” and “strangulation” of the legacy will be the consequences if a D.C. Superior judge endorses the wrong choice.
Representing the Corcoran, Charles Patrizia urged Judge Robert Okun to adopt the most detailed plan on the table — the proposal for the National Gallery of Art to absorb much of the art and for George Washington University to take over the Corcoran College of Art & Design.
Other ideas that emerged during an extraordinary seven-day evidentiary hearing are a “fantasy” and a “hope,” based on “fear and supposition,” Patrizia said. They cannot be counted on to address a terminal financial crisis at the Corcoran.
“There is no white knight with an actual pledge [of millions of dollars] in hand,” he said. “The very elements that make the Corcoran what it is would be sacrificed to the [opponents’] fantasy that some deus ex machina would rise on the stage.”
Andrew Tulumello, representing several students, faculty and staff, challenged the very premise that the Corcoran is in such dire financial straits.
“This is not an insolvency case,” he said, citing the $35 million that the Corcoran would give to GWU under the proposed deal. “Thirty-five million is more than the Corcoran has had, ever.”
Instead, Tulumello said, alternative rescue concepts suggested by philanthropist Wayne Reynolds and the University of Maryland, in combination with financial models advanced by an expert in charitable trusts, are worth trying in order to keep the Corcoran independent and intact.
“There is no historical precedent for what the [Corcoran] trustees — who, like generations of trustees, are only temporary stewards of this institution — are preparing to do here. . . . Such a final and irrevocable destruction of one of the oldest and most cherished cultural institutions in our country.”
The issue before the judge is whether to grant the Corcoran permission — known as cy près relief — to revise founder William W. Corcoran’s 1869 deed to permit the deal with GWU and the NGA. The Corcoran maintains that is the only way to protect the art, renovate the landmark Beaux-Arts building near the White House, and keep the college educating hundreds of students a year. In essence, the Corcoran’s leaders concede that those better-funded partners can carry out the original mission more robustly than can the Corcoran itself.
The NGA would display art in less than half the current gallery space. The rest of the museum would be converted to expand the college or provide support offices.
“If these transactions do not go forward, there are not available resources to operate [the college] beyond the immediate academic year,” and the gallery might have to close, Patrizia said. Even if the college limps along, he added, a national academic accrediting body will not guarantee the college can remain in good standing without GWU.
With the District government taking the Corcoran’s side in the matter, winning approval for the plan had seemed likely until last month, when Okun allowed the opponents to present witnesses and evidence.
The judge said Wednesday that he would issue a written ruling before Aug. 20, the date orientation begins at GWU.
Defeat of the Corcoran’s cy près petition would be a stunning blow to such powerful institutions as GWU and the NGA. When asked by Okun what would come next in such a scenario, Tulumello said one option would be for the parties to agree on an alternative approach and present it to the judge within 60 days.
On the other hand, if Okun rules in favor of the Corcoran, Tulumello said his clients would not appeal. However, they do have a separate complaint pending to remove the Corcoran trustees from the process of distributing art that the NGA does not take.
The courtroom presentations were strong and eloquent, veering from lofty rhetoric to granular citations of budget minutiae. Okun invited the overflow crowd to sit in the jury box.
The jousting between Patrizia and Tulumello took on a rhythm: Patrizia found as many ways as he could to assert how flimsy and even irresponsible the alternative options are. Tulumello parried with contentions that Corcoran leaders are passively crying poor when productive action plans are at hand.
About that $35 million: The Corcoran would give it to GWU to help renovate the building .
“Why, why, why is it the case that with this much money you would give it away to someone else for renovations?” Tulumello asked. “We are talking about staggering sums for a cultural institution to be giving away.”
Patrizia, when it came time for rebuttal, looked glad Tulumello asked.
The bulk of the $35 million is proceeds from selling Persian rugs last year. For the Corcoran to use money from art sales for construction, rather than buy more art, would cause it to lose its accreditation by museum sanctioning bodies, thus crippling its ability to raise money and present exhibitions, Patrizia said.
“The effect of those sanctions cannot be waved away,” he said.
Tulumello called that “a sham argument,” because under the Corcoran’s plan, GWU will still use the rug money for renovation. The only difference is that GWU, not being a museum, can’t be sanctioned by museum watchdogs.
Anyway, said Tulumello, museums can survive being sanctioned, and he cited a museum in Delaware.
“Most fundamentally, in three, four or five years, when the Corcoran [should be] hitting its 150th anniversary, the Delaware Art Museum is still going to be there,” Tulumello said. But if the break-up plan is approved, “the Corcoran is not” going to exist.
Yet even putting the rug money to use would hardly address the Corcoran’s financial difficulties, Patrizia said. Tens of millions of dollars are needed immediately as a down payment on at least $80 million in renovations, not to mention operating funds for the college and gallery. He scoffed at models presented by the charitable trust expert, relying on more fundraising.
“Fundraising is at best a gossamer,” Patrizia said. “It is as evanescent as fog.”
The Corcoran’s recent fundraising effort has indeed seemed evanescent, if not incompetent, Tulumello said, citing one year when a board authorized to have 18 members shrunk to nine — and three of those trustees gave zero dollars in one year.
In contrast, Tulumello characterized Reynolds, the former chairman and fundraising rainmaker at Ford’s Theatre, as someone who can bring energy and direction. Reynolds submitted a list of 23 power players for an “alternative” Corcoran board. Four of them reached in recent days confirmed to a reporter that they would serve on a board under Reynolds, including two former White House chiefs of staff — Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty III and Kenneth Duberstein — as well as lobbyist Linda Daschle and lobbyist and art collector Tony Podesta.
“Are they at the execution stage,” Tulumello said, referring to the Reynolds plan and the possibility of reviving a partnership with the University of Maryland. “No.”
But, he maintained, there is time.
“Enthusiasm or bravado are not substitutes for actual financial commitments,” Patrizia said. “The financial circumstances of the Corcoran do not permit waiting for an alternative.”