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Washington City Paper: University of Maryland Blindsided by Corcoran’s Surprise Deal

Wallace Loh, president, University of Maryland

Wallace Loh, President, University of Maryland

In an astonishing article posted online yesterday by the Washington City Paper, Kriston Capps and Jonathan Fischer reported that the University of Maryland was among those who were blindsided by the Corcoran’s surprise decision to drop its discussions with the University of Maryland in favor of an arrangement with the National Gallery and George Washington University.

According to the City Paper:

In an email to staff and faculty today [Feb. 20], University of Maryland president Wallace Loh writes that the school learned only yesterday that that the plan for a partnership between Maryland and the Corcoran was no longer on the table….

The proposal called for a “99-year marriage” between the Corcoran and Maryland, with “shared decision-making and shared responsibilities for co-management of the Gallery and the College under the continued auspices of the Corcoran trustees.” Maryland’s proposal offered immediate funding to stop the Corcoran’s operating deficits, funds toward renovating the Corcoran’s Beaux-Arts building, joint fundraising, management expertise, and other benefits.

“Two weeks ago, we had a cordial and productive discussion with Corcoran trustees on aspects of our proposal,” Loh’s email says. “We were awaiting Corcoran’s written response when they called us yesterday, shortly before their announcement that the Gallery and the College would be taken over separately.”

You can read the full text of Loh’s e-mail, in which he exhaustively detailed the work done by his university to flesh out the deal, in the top-linked City Paper article. He described the plan as a “marriage of equals.” As I described it here, the April Memorandum of Understanding between the Corcoran and the university seemed to me more like a takeover than and equal partnership. But the details may have evolved beyond that, during the extensive discussions that later took place.

We have not yet heard why the Corcoran rejected Maryland’s proposal in favor of the current Washington plan. One thing the new plan would do is keep the best of the Corcoran’s art in Washington, under the auspices of one of the country’s preeminent museums. I have asked for further explanation from the Corcoran. If I learn more, you’ll learn more.

Meanwhile, here’s more on the story from Nick Anderson and David Montgomery of the Washington Post and Eric Gibson of the Wall Street Journal.

And here’s a troubling article by Colleen Murphy of GWU’s student newspaper, the GW Hatchet, which suggests that at least some of the Corcoran’s elegant galleries (which need renovation) could be supplanted by less expensive classrooms:

Gallery officials had previously pegged the full renovations at $130 million, but [GWU President Steven] Knapp said those costs would be much lower because the university would not renovate it as a museum [emphasis added]….With the National Gallery of Art joining the negotiations, Corcoran could move most of its art out of the space so GW could build more classrooms [emphasis added].

In an interview about the deal with Carol Vogel of the NY Times, Earl Powell III, director ot the National Gallery, gushed that the Corcoran’s spaces are “arguably the most beautiful galleries of any museum in the United States.” Perhaps the intention is to covert the storage areas, not the galleries, into classrooms. Or perhaps some of those celebrated galleries could be redesigned or replaced:

2012 installation Corcoran's contemporary art collection Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

2012 installation from Corcoran’s contemporary art collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

A 2012 Diebenkorn show at the Corcoran

2012 Diebenkorn show at the Corcoran
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In the interests of clarity and transparency, the parties to the new “collaboration” should, at the very least, release the text of their Letter of Intent, just as the Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Maryland was made public during the last go-round. (My request for the Letter of Intent was denied yesterday.)

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