Glass sculpture and jewelry created by the artist known as Pascal were on display for 20 years in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, a gift from Pascal’s friend and noted philanthropist Alice C. Tyler. But the artwork — like most of the Corcoran’s 19,000-piece collection — went into storage in 2014, when what was then the oldest private museum in Washington closed.
Susanne Jill Petty — the daughter of the artist, Suzanne Pascal, and trustee of the Alice C. Tyler Art Trust — has spent the past four years trying to retrieve the 100 pieces of sculpture and paintings the trust gave to the Corcoran, along with the $1 million it donated to establish and maintain a gallery for their display.
“It’s personal,” said Petty, who lives in Los Angeles. “When someone entrusts you with something so dear to them, you need to carry out their wishes.”
Pascal, who is now 104, is renowned for glass sculptures that she created with a hammer and chisel. Born almost completely deaf, she spent part of her childhood in Italy, where she studied with a local sculptor. An operation in her late teens restored some of her hearing.
Her works have been collected by Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra and the British royal family and are included in the collections of the Vatican and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. Her largest sculpture, “Seated Torso,” was purchased by billionaire John Kluge for $3 million and displayed at his Virginia estate and winery. After buying that property, Donald Trump donated the sculpture to the Dunbar Historical Society in Pennsylvania.
Petty scored a victory in her crusade to reclaim her mother’s work when a California judge last month ordered the Corcoran to return the art, the money and pay her legal fees. Corcoran officials say that their lawyers are asking the judge to vacate the order and that if they aren’t successful, they will appeal.
It’s the latest legal skirmish for the Corcoran board. Years of financial problems pushed the board to seek court approval to merge its renowned art school with George Washington University and give custody of its prized art collection to the National Gallery of Art. The NGA acquired about 8,600 pieces, with the rest going to other Washington institutions.
The deal sparked public criticism and ended with a courtroom showdown that the Corcoran won. But the former museum may not succeed in its latest legal fight.
“They want to read their agreements as they wish they were written, not the way they were written,” Petty said.
Public display of Pascal’s work was a condition of the 1994 contract signed by Corcoran then-
director David C. Levy and several Tyler Art trustees, including Petty. The trust gave the museum about 100 pieces of art and $1 million “to cover costs associated with establishing and maintaining the permanent gallery and the collection,” according to court filings. The agreement states that the art and the cash gift must be returned if the Corcoran “has not complied with the conditions.”
Petty said officials initially agreed to return Pascal’s work. In a July 1, 2014, letter to Petty, Corcoran interim director Peggy Loar wrote: “We’ve been advised by the NGA that the Pascal works will not be accessioned. . . . If there are any museums or venues you are aware of that would be interested in the collection, or up to three locations that could each take a part, please advise and . . . we will pack and ship at our expense.”
On Aug. 25, 2014, Corcoran attorney David Julyan informed Petty that Loar had left the Corcoran and that he was now the primary contact. “I would like to resolve this matter in the next month if that seems reasonable and realistic from your perspective,” he wrote in an email. Neither of these messages mention returning the trust’s $1 million gift.
Petty identified two organizations that would accept and display the collection: the Dunbar Historical Society — where Pascal’s large-scale sculpture is on view — and Marymount High School in Los Angeles.
The Corcoran’s position changed after the D.C. judge approved the breakup of the institution and therefore nullified the Corcoran’s original deed and other agreements, including the one with the Tyler Art Trust. “The NGA is considering whether it will accession any of the Collection,” Julyan wrote to Petty’s attorneys in early 2015, contradicting Loar’s previous email. “I cannot predict how long that process will take, but I expect it to continue for several months.”
The process took three more years. This May, the Corcoran board announced that the Pascal art was among the 9,000 works given to American University, with an additional 20 institutions receiving most of the remaining 1,750 works. A spokeswoman for American said it is not a party in the case and has not yet taken possession of the art.
Julyan declined an interview request, but the Corcoran board issued a statement. “The Corcoran believes that the 2014 court order approving the contracts with the NGA and GW is proper and effective, and resolves all issues. We don’t otherwise comment on pending litigation.” Pascal’s works are the only ones being disputed, according to the Corcoran.
The Corcoran board has assets of $4.8 million as of June 30, 2017, according to its most recent tax return, which also shows that legal fees represented the Corcoran’s largest expense. Last year, the nonprofit paid Julyan’s firm $281,000, and it paid the national firm Paul Hastings LLP $134,546.
Petty’s attorney Jim Burgess isn’t claiming victory despite the judge’s ruling.
“The Corcoran has indicated that it wants to continue to fight,” Burgess said. “I think there will need to be a few more court appearances before the Corcoran sees the light.”
Petty is optimistic that the plan will go through.
“They signed the agreement in good faith,” she said. “They should live up to it.”