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Corcoran Gallery answers critics trying to block National Gallery, GW plan

Lawyers for the Corcoran Gallery of Art filed a brief Monday to rebut a group of students, alumni, doners and former faculty and staff trying to stall a plan to give most of the gallery’s art to the National Gallery of Art and turn over operations to George Washington University. (Kevin Wolf/AP)

A recent attempt to block a plan to dramatically reorganize the Corcoran Gallery of Art amounts to “obstruction for the sake of obstruction” that would disrupt the coming school year for art students and force the sale of artworks to pay for operations, lawyers for the Corcoran argued in a brief filed Monday morning in D.C. Superior Court.

The opponents lack standing to intervene in the reorganization pending before the court, they have offered no viable alternative and they are seeking court-ordered relief that is beyond the scope of the law, the lawyers said.

The 22-page filing is the Corcoran’s first substantive rebuttal to a group of students, alumni, donors and former faculty and staff trying to forestall a plan to give most of the gallery’s art to the National Gallery of Art and to turn over operations of the Corcoran College of Art & Design to George Washington University. Last week, in a brief reply, Corcoran lawyers called the opponents’ attack “a screed of false and malicious innuendo.”

The Monday brief sets forth a more technical legal argument by gallery lawyers for why the critics — who are joined by the advocacy group Save the Corcoran — purportedly have failed to establish grounds to enter into the matter.

“At bottom, the unhappiness that [the critics] voice in their papers is no basis on which to grant them standing or the relief they request,” the Corcoran lawyers said. “Whatever the depth of their emotional response, it is no substitute for an actual, substantive interest . . . Nor does it create a factual basis for allegations of mismanagement or the standing to bring those issues to the court.”

District Attorney General Irvin Nathan, whose office regulates charities such as the Corcoran, already is a party to the case, and he will represent the public interest — including the interest of the critics — as the Corcoran seeks a radical solution to its chronic financial difficulties, the lawyers said.

A hearing before Judge Robert Okun is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Friday.

The legal skirmish arises from a requirement that a nonprofit organization must receive court approval — via a “cy près” petition — when it moves to drastically change the nature of its operations. The Corcoran is seeking permission to modify founder William Corcoran’s 1869 deed to permit the new arrangement with the National Gallery and George Washington.

The gallery’s leaders say that it is impossible to continue as an independent hybrid museum-school because the institution has been unable to raise enough money to support operations and renovate the landmark building on 17th Street NW near the White House. Relying on the National Gallery and George Washington is the best way to assure that the most important parts of the Corcoran survive and thrive, they say.

The opponents counter that gallery leadership’s own actions have deepened the crisis, and therefore the court should demand an independent accounting and remove the gallery’s board of trustees. They charge that to split the art and the college between the National Gallery and George Washington is to destroy the Corcoran.

The new relationship with the National Gallery and George Washington is contingent upon the Corcoran receiving permission from the court. However, with the school year approaching, GW’s plans for the college are proceeding apace.

The name will be the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, within GW’s Columbian College of Arts & Sciences, university officials just announced. Most classes will be in the historic Corcoran building. Corcoran freshman and sophomores will be offered university housing; upperclassmen who want it will be wait-listed.

Current Corcoran students, and those incoming this fall, will receive the same education and pay about the same tuition as they would have in the college. New curriculum elements may be introduced starting with freshmen in 2015, but those and other details of the proposed integration remain to be worked out as the court mulls the plan.

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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