The court calls them “The Intervenors,” which sounds as if it could be the name of a performance art collective. If that were true, the past few weeks would have been quite a show for the group Save the Corcoran.
The scrappy group of students, staff, faculty and concerned observers dedicated to preserving the nearly 150-year-old museum as an independent institution in the face of a merger with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University see themselves as David fighting Goliath — which makes their recent legal intervention the proverbial sling to the forehead. They won’t find out whether they’ve slain their giant until Aug. 20 at the latest, which makes this week an anxious wait.
“I continue to be optimistic,” said longtime group member Brigitte Reyes, an alumna and former instructor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and founder of the Reyes + Davis gallery. “People want to wring their hands and go negative on me, and I won’t let them. I think we fought a good fight.”
“This lawsuit was a last resort to be heard,” said Jayme McLellan, the group’s leader. “If we hadn’t done it, the Corcoran was just going to go away.”
At stake is the issue of cy-pres — whether it would be “impossible or impracticable” for the Corcoran to continue its chartered mission. Three months ago, it seemed like a matter of course. But when Save the Corcoran’s legal team filed a brief on July 2, and nine of its members were granted the opportunity to present their case in court, the outcome became less certain.
After hearing testimony from students, staff and even philanthropist Wayne Reynolds, Judge Robert Okun is expected to hand down a decision by Aug. 20. And if cy-pres is denied, Save the Corcoran will go down as the band of rogues that changed the course of history for one of the country’s oldest art institutions.
“I don’t even know what the repercussions are going to be” if the merger is approved, McLellan said. “It’s like pulling out the biggest molar in the mouth of museums. Will the whole mouth collapse?”
Save the Corcoran’s intervention is the product of years of effort. McLellan, a former Corcoran instructor, founded the group in June 2012 after the museum announced the potential sale of its building.
After the February announcement of the George Washington-National Gallery merger, the group “started pushing the rock up the hill again,” McLellan said. Her recruits come from across the Corcoran community. Among them are Camila Rondon, a junior and president of the Corcoran Students’ Association; Joe Orzal, Corcoran alumnus and current audiovisuals manager; and Avi Gupta, 2004 alumnus and co-chair of the alumni steering committee.
Orzal was inspired to join the group based on his experience as a student at the Atlanta College of Art, which was absorbed into the Savannah College of Art and Design, a process he believed dampened the spirit of the small institution. He later transferred to the Corcoran.
“There’s something about the creative energy that’s there in those old classrooms,” said Orzal, who recalled being inspired by decades-old graffiti in his Corcoran classrooms. “I don’t think the people that will take over get that.”
It’s not just the loss of their intimate community that worries students, Rondon said. It’s the chance to learn and create in the same building as the Corcoran’s world-class collection, too.
“To be so intimate with these pieces — they’re our muses,” she said.
The group spent nearly three months putting together a case with Andrew Tulumello, a partner at Gibson Dunn who, after an initial donation of seed money from one of Save the Corcoran’s supporters, has now provided an estimated $2.5 million of pro-bono legal aid.
“I was so anxious the whole week,” said master’s candidate Caroline Lacey, who testified in court about what the Corcoran meant to her as a new media photojournalism student, a one-of-a-kind program.
“I felt kind of a responsibility for students and faculty and staff and the art, to fight for it,” Lacey said.
For those who weren’t sequestered as witnesses, watching the court proceedings was a test of wills.
“It was hard not to say something, or stand up,” Rondon said.
“There was gasping” when details about the museum’s finances were revealed, McLellan said. “A little bit of, ‘Whaaat?’ ”
Gupta said that it was “depressing” to hear the opposition’s arguments.
“Something that is I think so important to so many people [was] talked about in a very legal, matter-of-fact kind of way, especially in reference to art, and what the future of an institution like this means to the community,” Gupta said.
After all, the group’s members are driven by a complicated affection for the institution, even though the Corcoran’s feelings aren’t mutual.
“It definitely feels like a family member love, like we have to speak for it or else nobody else will,” McLellan said. “It’s been incredibly challenging, and it just got personal.”
McLellan resigned from her adjunct teaching position with the Corcoran in October 2012 but was recently asked back by fine art chair Lynn Sures to teach a “Professional Practices in the Visual Arts” course. Though McLellan had not received her contract, course catalogues listed her as the instructor for the class, beginning Sept. 9, and multiple e-mails confirmed that the Corcoran had her on its initial roster. As the litigation proceeded, she says her offer to teach the class was rescinded last week. Corcoran spokeswoman Mimi Carter declined to comment on individual personnel issues or on any matter regarding Save the Corcoran.
Despite the setback, McLellan and her rabble-rousers soldier on. If cy-pres is granted, the group will turn its attention toward lobbying to keep as much of the collection intact as possible. Under the terms of the deal, the National Gallery gets to select the art it would like to keep and distribute the remainder to other institutions.
If cy-pres is denied, the group says it will begin working toward a plan to raise money to sustain an independent Corcoran — the University of Maryland and Reynolds, who have proposed solutions for the college and museum’s troubles, could be key players — as well as foster a community of healing.
“Feeling like we’re being torn apart is definitely a bonding experience,” Lacey said. “I can’t imagine how it would [feel if] we won.”
In a way, McLellan says, they already have.
“We’ve actually changed public perception of what’s happening,” she said. “Before this hearing, people were like, ‘The Corcoran’s dead, it’s gone, it’s over.’ From this trial, people are going, ‘No, maybe it does have a chance.’ ”
Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of pro-bono legal aid provided to Save the Corcoran. It has been corrected.