A third proposal to “save” the Corcoran Gallery of Art emerged in D.C. Superior Court on Thursday when Wallace D. Loh, president of the University of Maryland, testified that within six weeks he could deliver a proposal to balance the budget and keep the institution independent and in Washington, albeit in partnership with the flagship campus in College Park.
“Philosophically, I’m absolutely committed to the fundamental principles laid out in terms of the independence of the Corcoran, keeping the gallery together with the [Corcoran College of Art and Design], turning it around financially and serving the larger community,” Loh said.
He was quick to add that he was appearing only in response to a subpoena from the lawyer for the advocacy group Save the Corcoran. He said that he was not seeking to derail the current plan for the Corcoran to give the bulk of its art to the National Gallery of Art and turn over the college to George Washington University.
However, Loh said that if Judge Robert Okun denies permission for the Corcoran to revise its 1869 deed of trust to enact the breakup, he would be willing to quickly revive a version of the $46 million Maryland partnership plan that the Corcoran rejected in February when it decided to go with GWU and the NGA.
Loh was among several witnesses who closed out the first week of an extraordinary evidentiary hearing meant to decide the fate of Washington’s oldest private art museum and its beloved art college. Court is not in session Friday; five more witnesses are scheduled for next week, with closing arguments as soon as Wednesday. Okun has not said when he will rule.
If the Corcoran’s preference for GWU and the NGA is door No. 1, and Maryland is door No. 3, the bold offer of help from philanthropist Wayne Reynolds — who says he already has 23 “alternative trustees” lined up — is door No. 2.
Thursday’s session began with Corcoran lawyer Charles Patrizia trying to undermine Reynolds’s credibility in cross-examination. He recalled the high-profile flap in the early 2000s when Reynolds and his wife withdrew a $38 million pledge to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Reynolds said it was because the museum director told him that the couple’s idea of an exhibit recognizing achievement could not be accomplished. Reynolds resisted Patrizia’s inferences that he intended to sell art to pay the Corcoran’s bills, despite past comments, quoted by Patrizia, that seemed to suggest as much. Reynolds said he would sell art only to “refresh the collection with [new] art that people want to see.”
Turning to Loh in a less confrontational manner — the two were part of the collegial group that negotiated the Maryland deal, on opposite sides — Patrizia sought to highlight reasons that the Corcoran trustees abandoned Maryland:
The $46 million from Maryland would have included loans and might not cover all costs; the Corcoran would have had to give Maryland a security interest in the landmark building near the White House; Maryland insisted that the nearly bankrupt gallery pay substantial renovation costs; and Maryland would get to nominate a majority of the board of trustees, Patrizia noted. In addition, Corcoran Chairman Harry F. Hopper III testified earlier that the university refused to take full financial responsibility for the college.
Loh amiably pushed back. The money would have had to have been repaid only if the Corcoran backed out of the partnership, he said, and Maryland would have been willing to contribute more in the future. The security interest was necessary to protect Maryland’s investment. If a $10 million bequest from philanthropist Huguette Clark did not come through, Maryland would have found a way to fill the gap. And the Maryland-nominated trustees would have a fiduciary duty to the Corcoran, not to Maryland. And it was the Corcoran, at first, that had insisted on independence, and then wanted a takeover, he said.
Loh acknowledged that he could not guarantee that a future proposal would be identical to the one that had been set aside. Nor could he say with certainty that the University of Maryland’s regents and the state’s politicians would give their blessing — uncertainties on which Patrizia seized.
Andrew Tulumello, representing Save the Corcoran, repeated what he considered the bottom line: Unlike the GWU deal, under which the Corcoran would give GWU $43 million and its Beaux-Arts masterpiece of a building, the $46 million from Maryland “is cash that is coming from the university to the Corcoran.”
Tulumello’s colleague John Chesley introduced two expert witnesses: Accounting specialist Kathy Raffa, who works with nonprofit entities, displayed charts to show that the Corcoran’s fundraising lags significantly behind two comparable museums in Washington (the Phillips Collection and the National Museum of Women in the Arts) as well as museum-college institutions in Boston, Chicago and Cleveland.
Patrizia’s colleague Jeremy Evans challenged the years and data points Raffa selected: “One can manipulate the numbers any way one wants, right?”
Chesley asked museum fundraising expert Paul Johnson what the Corcoran needed.
“Vision, vision, vision,” Johnson said. “If a really bold vision was articulated for the Corcoran, we would not be sitting in this courtroom.”