The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Secrecy breeds anxiety over the future of the Corcoran Gallery’s art

Washington Color School artist Paul Reed, shown with one of his works in 2011, says he was more disappointed than surprised when the Corcoran returned one of his paintings. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Its death sentence came down in a public courtroom, but the priceless estate of the Corcoran Gallery of Art is being divvied up under a cloak of secrecy.

Museum-goers who grew up with Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of George Washington and George Inness’s landscapes don’t know if these and other treasures from the city’s oldest private museum will hang on the walls of the National Gallery of Art or at one of the Smithsonian museums — or if they will be consigned to a storage facility.

That's because the National Gallery of Art, which took custody of the 17,000-piece collection when the Corcoran went belly up in August, isn't saying. Almost five months into the Herculean task of taking inventory, the NGA won't reveal any details of the effort. It isn't telling the artists whose work is up for grabs or the directors of other museums eager to infuse their own collections with Corcoran art.

And although the NGA board has voted to accession — or add to its collection — some works, it won’t say which or how many.

"I have great respect for the National Gallery of Art, I always have, but what the hell is going on?" asked Wilfred Brunner, a Washington painter proud to have two works in the Corcoran collection.

Curators are reviewing the works and matching them to the Corcoran’s master list, NGA spokeswoman Deborah Ziska said. “This is a painstaking review. There are a lot of works that haven’t seen the light for years, that have been in storage for a long time,” she said. “Our curators are going through and, in accordance with what we collect already, are looking through the works for what makes sense to accession.”

The NGA’s director, Earl A. Powell III, and deputy director, Frank Kelly, review the curators’ decisions, and they bring their selections to the board, said Ziska.

Ziska said that the museum doesn’t know when the review will be completed but that “we hope to have something to announce soon” about decisions that have already been made, she said. “But I don’t want to give it a date.”

The Corcoran agreement — part off a broader deal that sent the Corcoran School of Art and Design and the Corcoran’s beaux-arts building to George Washington University – gave the NGA the right of first refusal to the entire collection. The settlement also requires that the NGA help the Corcoran Board of Trustees find homes for the works it doesn’t want. According to the agreement, no work can be sold.

Former Corcoran interim director Peggy Loar said the board will take its cues from the NGA specialists. “The board knows they are not the experts, and there is so much expertise there than we ever had,” Loar said. “I’m sure the NGA wants to get it right, and that’s why they’re clammed up.”

‘No transparency’

Although no longer making headlines, the Corcoran is still the hot topic in local arts circles. Many artists and others in the arts community are curious about the process and skeptical that decisions about artwork held in the public trust should be made behind closed doors. And given the Corcoran’s reputation, they worry that sloppy organization will lead to confusion.

For example, a painting by Paul Reed — one of the last living members of the Washington Color School — was returned to the 95-year-old artist this summer. Reed said Corcoran officials brought it to his Arlington home when they couldn’t find its paperwork in their archives.

Reed, who worked at the Corcoran many years ago, said a painting had never been returned to him before. But he was less surprised — “Historically, that’s typical of the Corcoran,” he said – than disappointed to have it back. “I was hoping the National Gallery would take them,” he said. Reed believes that there are still “four or five” of his works in the Corcoran collection. The NGA already owns at least one.

Ziska said the returned work is part of a group of about 134 “temporary loans” that were in the Corcoran’s possession last summer when the agreement was signed. The Corcoran did not have titles to the works, so the NGA could not take custody of them, Ziska said. They are not included in the 17,000 works the NGA will review.

There are other mysteries. Artist Gail Rebhan sent a letter to the NGA inquiring about two of her works; she received a form letter in response from the Corcoran’s general counsel, David Julyan. It acknowledged only one.

The process has been slow because the Corcoran’s list “may not be entirely accurate,” Ziska said. Even the exact number of items now in the National Gallery’s custody is unclear, she said.

The lack of certainty has fueled rumor, worry and mistrust. Robin Moore, an art consultant and the widow of Washington artist Kevin MacDonald, inquired about her husband’s 11 works and got the same boilerplate reply as Rebhan and others.

“There’s no transparency,” Moore said. “I’m fine with wherever it goes as long as it doesn’t look like its being treated with disrespect. The prime concern is to avoid any yard-selling of work.”

Accession rumors aren’t limited to Washington. Independent art consultant Teresa Grana was viewing a show at a museum in Kansas when she overheard an employee boast that the museum was in line to receive a piece from the Corcoran. When she approached NGA curators about their progress, they offered no specifics.

Grana is among those concerned about the criteria for accessioning. The NGA does not have a strong track record for diversity, she said, and she worries that its curators may overlook the value of some of the Corcoran’s works, especially the Evans-Tibbs Collection of African American Art, rumored to be going to Howard University.

“They have no business giving any part of the Tibbs Collection away,” Grana said. “How can a federal institution not be transparent? We want to know what’s going on.”

The NGA is heavily supported by the federal government. In 2014, its $143 million operating budget included $110 million in federal funds. But as a nonprofit corporation, it is not required to make its decisions or policies public.

Several artists wonder who is safeguarding the vast number of artworks not attributed to famous names. Nicholas O’Donnell, a Boston-based lawyer who specializes in art issues, said the short answer is no one.

“For better or worse, the attorney general is the backstop,” O’Donnell said, referring to the D.C. attorney general’s limited role. The court agreement includes no oversight of the NGA’s accessioning process. The involvement of the District’s top lawyer is required only for works that are going elsewhere.

“The Corcoran is required to give the Office of Attorney General a report identifying the works that the National Gallery of Art will not acquire, and if the Corcoran proposes to distribute any of those works outside the District or to an institution in D.C. that is not an art gallery, university or public building, to ensure that the Corcoran’s art does not leave the District without OAG or court approval,” said Ted Gest, a spokesman for the D.C. attorney general.

Since the attorney general’s office supported the Corcoran’s plan, O’Donnell said, it is unlikely to have concerns about any “funny business.”

Objects of desire

Julyan said the project is proceeding according to the court order. “NGA continues to review the Corcoran Collection and it is my understanding that they will be making accessioning decisions in the months ahead,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips Collection, urged patience, saying the enormous task will require many months of work. “I have every confidence that the great professionals are going to embark on this daunting task with utmost professionalism and thoroughness,” she said. “They’re going to do it right, and it’s going to take time.”

Although the NGA is not required to seek community input, many believe that such cooperation would help to heal wounds caused by the Corcoran’s demise.

“We all benefit from transparency in general,” Moore said. “The Corcoran could have ended in the exact same position, but with some transparency there would have been less ill will.”

Museum directors who have their eyes on certain Corcoran pieces don’t know who to lobby privately or whether their appeals are being heard.

“I’ve let people know I’m interested in the Washington collection. They have some great Washington art, and I’d like to see it kept together,” said Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. “We have the facility and the wherewithal to make great use of it.”

Kosinski said any fantasizing about access to Corcoran works is premature. “It’s the National Gallery’s prerogative and duty to enrich the collection of the National Gallery,” she said.

But after the NGA’s accessions are decided, the broader community might become involved. “I’ve asked my curators to keep the conversations warm with our colleagues. At a certain point in the future, there might be a list to peruse,” she said.

“Maybe there’s dealmaking going on, but I suspect not,” she said.

Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums, said there is no guidebook for the effort, which is unlike any he has encountered.

"I suspect that they are nervous about having information come out in fragments," Bell said. "They want to get a plan together and . . . talk about the plan in its entirety.

“That’s reasonable. The task is enormous.”