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Corcoran Dissolution: Whither the Art-Sale Proceeds?

Peggy Loar, interim director, Corcoran Gallery of Art

Peggy Loar, interim director and president, Corcoran Gallery of Art

Poised to terminate its status as an art museum, the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, is sitting on a pile of money that it accumulated by selling objects from its collection. The museum’s Annual Report (posted on its website) pegs the amount “receivable from sales of collections items” at the end of fiscal 2013 at $39.9 million. In accordance with museums’ professional standards, the use of that money was to have been restricted to purchases for the collection (i.e., not operating support or capital projects).

What will become of those millions, now that the Corcoran is planning to wind down its museum functions in general and its art collecting in particular? That’s the “sensitive unanswered question” I referred to at the end of my last post about the still amorphous plans for oversight and control of the Corcoran’s building and collections by, respectively, George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art.

The fate of the art-sale proceeds is a nettlesome issue because (as CultureGrrl readers know) museums’ use of such funds for anything but art purchases violates the strict professional standards promulgated by the Association of Art Museum Directors. It would also run contrary to the auction-catalogue notices to bidders saying that the proceeds from the Corcoran’s disposals would be applied towards acquisitions.

When I asked the Corcoran what will now happen to the art-sale proceeds, I received this enigmatic, troubling reply:

Funds that donors restrict to use for the college or the maintenance of the building will go to GW and funds that donors restricted [emphasis added] for use with the collection will go to NGA. The use of all other funds and proceeds, and all other details will be addressed in the definitive documents [which are due to be completed by Apr. 7].

Donors of artworks typically don’t “restrict” the use of funds received from sales of their gifts, because they don’t envision such disposals. So, absent donor restrictions, the Corcoran may (unless the “definitive documents” say otherwise) use the art-sale proceeds for whatever purposes deemed appropriate by the three partners, regardless of the strictures that would have been in place had the Corcoran remained an art museum.

If the art proceeds were used for non-acquisition purposes—to defray the cost of renovating the Corcoran’s building, for example—the National Gallery, whether it is the direct custodian of that money or not, would be party to a plan that violated a bedrock principle of the professional association to which it belongs.

The Corcoran might argue that since it will no longer be a collecting institution (or a museum, for that matter), AAMD’s ethical standards no longer pertain to what it does with the art-sale proceeds. Maybe so. But in light of recent developments, what I wrote last June about the Corcoran’s deplorable disposal of its magnificent ”Sickle-Leaf” carpet has gained disturbing new meaning and is truer than I knew:

The Corcoran has repeatedly stated…that “proceeds for deaccessions are used only to purchase new artwork for the collection. We have not and will not sell works to finance operations or to fund capital projects.”

The question remains, though, [and has now become even more troubling] why the financially hard-pressed Corcoran would jettison a treasure that belongs in a museum and should have remained in the public domain. Its museum-worthiness is evidenced by its exhibition history, at both the Corcoran and other major institutions (which I previously detailed, here).

This is one redefinition of “scope of collection” that shouldn’t have happened or, at the very least, should have been postponed until the Corcoran’s as yet unhired new permanent director was given the chance to make recommendations on the museum’s future plans and priorities. Interim director and president Peggy Loar commented after the sale that “the significant proceeds raised will enable us to make dynamic acquisition choices in line with our mission as we look to the future.” [All emphasis added.]

Clark "Sickle-Leaf" carpet, probably Kirman, South Persia, 17th century, approximately 8' 9" by 6' 5" Sold for $TK million     Est. $5/7 million

Clark “Sickle-Leaf” carpet, probably Kirman, South Persia, 17th century
Sold by the Corcoran Gallery at Sotheby’s last June for $33.77 million

It now seems that proceeds from the carpet’s sale will not go towards “dynamic acquisition choices” at the Corcoran (if that was every really intended), because the institution’s mission has changed. And Loar has not turned out to be (if that was ever truly the plan) the Corcoran’s “interim director,” but its final director. Her function, as things have played out, was not to preserve and strengthen Washington’s 145-year-old cultural mainstay, but to preside over its permanent dissolution.

In addition to last year’s carpet disposal, the Corcoran—a deaccession recidivist—received acquisition funds from a number of other regrettable art sales (some of which I detailed in this post). But since the Corcoran told me today that its acquisition fund as of June 30 totaled $39.9 million—slightly more than the $38.38-million hammer total from the June 5 sale of 25 carpets, including the “Sickle Leaf”—it appears that the bulk of the money from previous disposals has already been spent (presumably on art purchases).

The Corcoran may yet receive more proceeds from art, beefing up its dowry for the impending three-way marriage. In addition to the $10 million in cash that is coming its way from the estate of Huguette Clark (daughter of U.S. Senator and major Corcoran benefactor William Clark), it stands to get half of any proceeds above $25 million for this painting (not part of the Corcoran’s collection and therefore not subject to AAMD’s strictures), to be auctioned at Christie’s from Huguette Clark’s estate on May 6:

Monet, "TK,"  Presale estimate: $25-$35 millon at Christie's, May TK Photo by Katya Kazakina

Monet, “Water Lilies,” 1907
Presale estimate: $25-$35 million
Photo taken at Christie’s by Katya Kazakina

In addition, the Corcoran had of $14.07 million in general endowment funds as of the end of fiscal 2013 (down from $23.18 million in fiscal 2009), as reported on p. 2 of its Form 990 tax return.

The bottom line in this debacle is that any decision to disassemble and repurpose the Corcoran, handing over its artistic and financial assets, should have been made not by a temp but by a permanent hire—a director with the experience, imagination, and long-term commitment to turn around a stricken institution that needed urgent care, not assisted suicide.

Now it looks like no one will get that chance.

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