The Washington Post

Corcoran Gallery, GWU and National Gallery close deal to transform Corcoran

The Corcoran Gallery of Art will contribute about $48 million of endowment funds and proceeds from a previous sale of precious rugs to help finance the new arrangement under which George Washington University will operate the art school and the National Gallery of Art will receive most of the art, officials said Thursday afternoon.

All 25 full-time faculty members of the Corcoran College of Art and Design will be offered one-year contracts with the university, and 20 museum employees — including all the curators — will be invited to join the National Gallery for at least a year. But about 180 adjunct faculty members will not be promised positions, and 30 to 40 other full-time gallery or college staffers will lose their jobs.

Current Corcoran students and those admitted for the fall of 2014 will continue to pay tuition at the lower Corcoran College rates, plus minor annual increases. But university officials are still debating how the art college will be integrated into the university and what future students will pay. Undergraduate tuition at the Corcoran is $31,860, compared with $48,790 at George Washington. Students will receive GWU degrees, with the Corcoran name included on diplomas earned by current students.

The details emerged as three of Washington’s most venerable cultural and educational institutions signed documents to formalize the arrangement announced in February. Under the plan, Washington’s oldest private art gallery, founded in 1869 by financier William W. Corcoran, and the city’s distinguished stand-alone art school, opened in 1890, will cease to exist as an independent, hybrid entity.

For that reason, the plan is still subject to approval in D.C. Superior Court: Under rules governing nonprofit organizations, the Corcoran must seek what is known as a “cy-pres” determination from the court because its originally chartered operations are changing so dramatically. The D.C. attorney general’s office, which oversees nonprofit groups, will be a party to the proceeding. Any dissenting member of the Corcoran’s board also could have standing to object, though the trustees voted unanimously to approve the plan, according to a spokeswoman.

The Corcoran’s financial plight was so dire and intractable for so many years that there was no other choice but to turn over its twin missions — presenting art and training artists — to more financially healthy caretakers, said Peggy Loar, interim director and president of the Corcoran gallery and college.

“I think what remains to be seen is this wonderful collaboration and partnership with two institutions with the resources to do what we have not been able to do,” Loar said. “We’re not just talking about a stable environment, we’re talking about something better. We’re talking about something flourishing.”

The National Gallery will maintain 15,000 square feet of exhibit space on the skylit second floor of the Corcoran building’s most historic section. That is less than half the 37,000 square feet of current exhibition space. One room will be a “Corcoran Legacy Gallery” with key works of the collection, and other rooms will feature more contemporary work, from the National Gallery and elsewhere. Instead of the current $10 charge at the door, admission will be free.

GWU will expand the college into some of the rooms where art is now displayed.

“The Corcoran is changing — everyone needs to understand that,” said Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III, director of the National Gallery. “But it’s changing in a way that retains its dignity and keeps it in Washington and active and vibrant.”

The National Gallery is likely to select more than half the Corcoran’s 17,000 artworks, “to make a logical marriage of the two collections that enhances both of them,” Powell said. The rest will be given to other museums, with priority granted to local galleries. None will be sold.

Among the pieces of the Corcoran’s identity that will survive its demise as an independent institution is the landmark Beaux-Arts building itself, on 17th Street NW near the White House. In addition to taking over the college, the university will assume responsibility for renovating the grand edifice. The Corcoran board had contemplated selling the building in 2012 in a widely criticized scheme to address the gallery’s financial problems.

“I see it as creating a hub for the arts and arts education,” said GWU President Steven Knapp. “It will also help focus attention on how important the arts are to the competitiveness of our nation.”

The university also will take responsibility for preserving the famed Salon Doré, the 18th-century French period room on the first floor; the 16th-century French mantel on the first floor; and the Canova Lions out front. GWU will sell the Corcoran’s classroom building in Georgetown and use the proceeds for renovations of the main building.

Some students and faculty looked forward to greater resources for art education.

“I think part of this spring has been mourning the independence of the Corcoran College, but the flip side is there’s a real opportunity to create something bigger and better than either one of us has alone,” said Andy Grundberg, associate provost and dean of undergraduate studies at the Corcoran college.

He noted that although GWU enrolls fewer art students — the Corcoran had 554 undergraduate and graduate students last fall — GWU does offer a master of fine arts degree. The Corcoran never could, because it did not have adequate studio space.

“Our easels have never been updated in I don’t know how many years,” said Lorenzo Cardim, a senior. “Literally we are putting duct tape on things.”

But Cardim worried that future art students might have trouble affording a big increase in tuition. A GWU spokeswoman said that about 60 percent of students receive financial aid.

“The Corcoran was meant to be an independent voice that encourages American genius,” Jayme McLellan, a founder of the advocacy group Save the Corcoran, said in an e-mail. “And at $48,000 a year for tuition, the artists enrolled in GW’s Corcoran had better be geniuses at earning a paycheck.”

One irony in the announcement of the financial arrangements is that the struggling Corcoran has $48 million to contribute to the deal. A relative windfall came from three sources last year: The Corcoran was awarded $11.25 million from the settlement of the estate of Huguette Clark, yet to be paid. The institution also booked an anonymous donation of $5.2 million. And last year the Corcoran raised about $40 million from the sale of Persian rugs.

The rug money was to be used only for the acquisition of more art, in accordance with ethical standards upheld by the museum sector, which frowns on art sales for any other purpose. Since “the Corcoran” will no longer be a museum (it will endure as a small charity) and will no longer be buying art, it will no longer be bound by those guidelines, Loar said. So $35 million of the rug money that has not been spent will go to GWU for building renovations.

Such unique circumstances are not addressed in the professional practices upheld by the Association of Art Museum Directors to guard against art sales for improper motives. But the group announced support for the deal, including the use of the rug money for renovation, “because it protects the core of the Corcoran’s collections and will preserve them for the Washington community as well as visitors,” Christine Anagnos, the association’s executive director, said in an e-mail.

Knapp said the first phase of renovations will cost about $25 million. The total will exceed the $35 million coming from the Corcoran, although he said he could not estimate by how much — except that it will be less than the $100 million-plus renovation estimate that the Corcoran publicized in 2012. Costs will be lower, Knapp said, because a smaller portion of the building is being renovated to meet museum exhibition standards. Starting in October, the gallery spaces will be closed, except for special events, as work begins. The college will remain open.

As for the rest of the $48 million the Corcoran is contributing to the deal:

●Endowment funds of $8 million, designated for the college, will go to GWU to help operate the college. A separate $5 million in endowment funds restricted to caring for the collection will go to the National Gallery.

●The National Gallery will pay GWU about $150,000 a year for the use of gallery space and will pay an unspecified amount for security, maintenance and cosmetic improvements, Powell said.

Court approval could take months to obtain. The rest of the available Corcoran funds not going to operations — which have been running a deficit for years — will provide a budget of about $5 million for the surviving Corcoran nonprofit. It will have a large say in where the artwork not taken by the National Gallery is distributed. And, Corcoran leaders said, it also will fund scholarships and grants and pursue other efforts “dedicated to art and encouraging American genius.”

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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