News & Politics

Critics of Corcoran Merger Have One Last Chance to Save the Museum

A DC Superior Court judge will decide if the merger is final after hearings this week.

The Corcoran Gallery. Photograph by Flicker user SBC9.

After years of uncertainty due to ailing finances, the fate of Washington’s oldest art museum will be determined once and for all this week.

Opponents of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s controversial merger plan—which would hand the bulk of its art over to the National Gallery of Art and its art school operations to George Washington University—will appear in DC Superior Court Monday, hoping to derail the deal at the last minute. Although the Corcoran’s trustees finalized the agreement back in May, the merger must still be approved by a judge, who recently agreed to hear from a group of merger critics before issuing his decision.

The Corcoran’s trustees insist the merger is the best way to save the institution from financial collapse. The 145-year-old Corcoran, located across the street from the White House, is home to the perhaps the world’s finest collection of 19th-century American art. Its landmark Beaux-Arts building also houses the 600-student Corcoran College of Art and Design, which has long nurtured up-and-coming artists.

But as fundraising and attendance have tanked, the Corcoran has posted budget deficits in 11 of the past 13 years, according to the Washington Post, and the building now needs as much as $100 million in repairs. “If required to continue to operate in the current mode, [the Corcoran] would exhaust its available financial resources, and would be required to sell portions of its collection to maintain its operations,” the trustees argued in court documents.

The Corcoran’s board, led by chairman Harry Hopper, blames its woes on factors outside its control. Trustees point out that since the Corcoran is a private museum it must charge admission, putting it at a competitive disadvantage with the nearby federally funded museums that tourists can visit for free. In addition, the trustees said in court documents, “while the Corcoran has benefitted from the close relationship between the Gallery and the College, the fundraising for each has been hampered by the lack of unique identity for either.”

But a plucky band of students, faculty, staff, and supporters known as Save the Corcoran has spent the past two years arguing that the Corcoran’s financial crisis has been engineered by the board itself. Hopper, for example, hired his next-door neighbor to serve as the Corcoran’s chief operating officer despite her “virtually complete lack of experience in the art world,” the group argued in court documents, and the trustees spent $3.7 million to bring in just $4 million in fundraising contributions in 2012 through 2013. Perhaps most galling of all, the Corcoran itself will chip in nearly $50 million to help finance the deal, according to the Post.

To critics, the Corcoran doesn’t need a merger—it needs a new board. “The problem has been—and remains—a failure of leadership,” Save the Corcoran argued.

During a four-day hearing beginning Monday, Save the Corcoran will have a last chance to convince the court that a more competent board could revitalize the Corcoran without resorting to a complicated merger with two other organizations.

If the merger opponents are unsuccessful, the Corcoran as we know it will be gone forever.

Find Luke Mullins on Twitter at @lmullinsdc

Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.