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Pulling the Rug Out from Under the Corcoran and Disregarding William Corcoran’s Deed

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 on June 5, 2013 for $33.77 million

Only by reverse-engineering the deal signed on Thursday by the Corcoran Gallery and college, the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University does the Corcoran’s auction of its Clark “Sickle-Leaf” carpet, almost a year ago, start to make sense. Why would the financially floundering Corcoran have sold one of its great treasure for the stated purpose—to bankroll acquisitions—at a time with its future existence was in serious doubt?

I’ve wondered about that ever since the time of that problematic, perplexing June 5 disposal, when I wrote this:

The Corcoran has repeatedly stated (as its spokesperson reiterated to me today) 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, 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) [Emphasis added].

Now the Corcoran is doing exactly what it had vowed never to do—using the proceeds from its 25-carpet spring cleaning (with the $33.77-million Sickle-Leaf accounting for the bulk of the take) “to fund capital projects”—namely, the restoration and reconfiguration by George Washington University of the Corcoran’s interior to make necessary repairs and to better serve that university’s purposes.

The logic behind the Corcoran’s then perplexing disposals now seems clear. The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from this sorry episode is that the Corcoran, desperately seeking suitors, needed to amass a dowry. The “acquisition fund” rationale was likely a pretext.

The fig leaf being used by the Corcoran to cover this obscene breach of public trust is the argument that the Corcoran will cease to be a “museum” and is therefore no longer bound by the standards for deaccessioning set forth by the Association of Art Museum Directors and in its own written deaccession policy.

This slippery logic doesn’t pass the smell test. What should be binding, ethically if not legally, are the Corcoran’s own promises, made publicly, emphatically and repeatedly, less than a year ago. The pretext for merchandising the rugs now appears to have been a shameful sham. Sadly, the AAMD appears to have given this a pass.

Although the three parties to the merger have released details of their agreement, they have not made public the full text of the document itself. When I requested a copy of the agreement, Deborah Ziska, the National Gallery’s chief of press and public information, told me that it “will be available from the [D.C. Superior] court but I don’t have the exact date yet.”

I also asked Corcoran spokesperson Mimi Carter for a copy of the document that will be the focus of her institution’s planned court petition for permission to deviate from its stipulations. She told me last week that it would be posted in the museum’s website.

Now it’s there.

William W. Corcoran’s May 1869 deed states that the real estate conveyed in his gift “shall be…used…for the perpetual establishment and maintenance of a Public Gallery and Museum [emphasis added] for the promotion and encouragement of the arts of painting and sculpture, and the fine arts generally.”

Then comes the kicker:

These presents [the property conveyed in the deed]…shall…become utterly void and of none effect, whensoever it shall be decreed…by the highest judicial authority having jurisdiction…that the real estate hereinbefore conveyed shall have been diverted from the purpose of this trust…so as substantially to defeat…this trust….Thereupon, …the heirs, divisees or assigns or other proper legal representatives…of said William W. Corcoran shall be entitled to reenter upon said real estate of his [emphasis added].

This “right of reentry” for William Corcoran’s successors (shades of Archer Huntington‘s trust indenture for the Hispanic Society of America) appears to be what the Corcoran’s lawyers will be seekng to avert through its planned cy pres petition in D.C. Superior Court. It is also what D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan will have to weigh when deciding what position to take regarding to the Corcoran’s petition.

Whether the students at the Corcoran School of Art (whose last graduating class celebrated its commencement this weekend) will attempt to gain standing in those court proceedings (shades of the Barnes Foundation) remains to be seen.

Because I’ll be traveling this week, I’ll be limited in my ability to post on this or any other subject. (I’ll occasionally tweet @CultureGrrl.) Upon my return, I’ll pick up on the unfolding developments in this continuing saga.

For now, I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: Any decision about the embattled Corcoran’s future should have been made not by an interim director, but by a permanent hire—a professional with the experience, imagination, and long-term commitment to turning around a stricken institution that needed urgent care, not assisted suicide. As it’s played out, Peggy Loar seems to have been hired not to rescue the Corcoran but to oversee its dismemberment. The “Sickle-Leaf” sale, as we now know, was just the beginning.

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