It’s official: The Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art and Design will be dissolved in October after a District judge upheld the financially failed institution’s plan to be taken over by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University.
In the ruling issued Monday afternoon, Judge Robert Okun of DC Superior Court rejected a last-minute case by Save the Corcoran, a group of Corcoran students, staff, and benefactors seeking to block the 145-year-old institution’s bureacratic death. Okun’s ruling allows the Corcoran’s cy-prés petition to move forward, meaning its 17,000-item collection will fall under the auspices of the NGA, while the art school is absorbed into GWU. The university will also take over the Corcoran’s building, an iconic Beaux Arts landmark from 1897 that needs as much as $130 million in repairs.
Because the Corcoran is a nonprofit organization, changes to its charter need to be approved by a judge. In his opinion, Okun seems sensitive to founder William Corcoran’s desire that the museum bearing his name remain “an institution in Washington City,” as Corcoran wrote in the original 1869 charter.
“[T]he Court is aware that the GW/NGA proposal is inconsistent with Mr. Corcoran’s intent in one important respect—unlike the UMD proposal from February 2014, the GW/NGA proposal effectively eliminates the Corcoran as an independent institution, leaving behind only an untethered Board of Trustees to advise GW and NGA on future plans for the College and Gallery,” Okun writes. “Undoubtedly, Mr. Corcoran would not be pleased by this turn of events. It seems likely, however, that he would be pleased to see that the College will be preserved through its partnership with the very university to which he donated both property and his company’s archives, and where he served as Chairman of the Board for several years, and that the Gallery will be preserved through its partnership with one of the country’s pre-eminent art institutions.”
The Corcoran has been struggling for years under its current management. Save the Corcoran argued in court that the museum’s board, led by Harry Hopper, raised just $4 million in 2012 and spent $3.7 million of it. The Corcoran also attempted to raise money by selling off some of its most prized items, such as the Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet, a Persian rug that went for $33.8 million in a 2013 auction.
Under terms of the arrangements with the NGA and GWU announced in February, the museum will close around October 1. Students, now enrolled in GWU’s Columbian College, will continue to attend classes at the Corcoran building, though current students’ tuition will remain the same. While most of the current galleries will be closed to the public, parts of the building will eventually reopen with exhibits presented by the NGA under the banner “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art” featuring small selections from the Corcoran’s vault.
Save the Corcoran, led by former instructor Jayme McLellan, has been brief so far in its obviously disappointment.
“The Corcoran as we know it is gone,” the group says on its Facebook page. “We fought the good fight.”
Closing out his ruling, Okun writes that his decision, while “painful” to issue, likely staved off complete disaster given the Corcoran’s unsteady leadership.
“[T]his Court would find it even more painful to deny the relief requested and allow the Corcoran to face its likely demise—the likely dissolution of the College, the closing of the Gallery, and the dispersal of the Gallery’s entire collection,” he writes. “Fortunately, two internationally recognized institutions, with strong and enduring commitments to education and the arts, have agreed to sustain the College under the Corcoran name, and to provide the same educational and employment opportunities to its students, faculty, and staff; to maintain the Gallery and much of the collection under the Corcoran name, and to keep it open to the public; and to renovate the iconic building which houses both the College and the Gallery.”
Read the full opinion below.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.