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“Save the Corcoran” Issues No-Move Demand in Lawyer’s Letter

New owner’s name here? (the Corcoran’s entrance)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In an implied threat of legal action, the ad hoc Save the Corcoran group yesterday sent a nine-page lawyer’s letter to the leadership of the Corcoran Gallery of Art & College of Art + Design, demanding that the institution remain in Washington, DC, and alleging that it would be in violation of its founding charter if it moved out of the city and into the Metro DC suburbs. Such a move—possibly to Alexandria, VA—is being contemplated as one of several possible alternatives for the financially and administratively floundering institution.

The group further demanded that three individuals chosen by Save the Corcoran’s advisory committee be named to the institution’s board of trustees and that the institution reply to the lawyer’s demands by Oct. 19.

Good luck with that.

Why I support the group’s objectives and strongly believe that a way must be found to keep it in its current building, it seems to me foolish to expect that the current board will agree to augment its ranks with individuals handpicked by a dissident group. What’s more, contrary to the claim of lawyer Andrew Tulumello of the Gibson Dunn firm that “the museum’s charter requires [his emphasis] that the Corcoran remain in Washington,” the language in founder William Corcoran‘s deed establishing the Corcoran would seem to fall short of an ironclad stipulation.

In his Washington Post article today on the advocates’ ultimatum, David Montgomery wrote:

On May 10, 1869, financier William W. Corcoran affixed his seal to a
property deed to permit “the execution of a long cherished desire [my emphasis] to
establish an institution in Washington City, to be dedicated to Art, and
used solely for the purpose of encouraging American genius.”

This sounds like what lawyers refer to as “precatory”—a wish that’s may not be strictly binding. While it seems clear that a move would run contrary to the founder’s original intent, the Corcoran’s lawyers could plausibly argue that it did not violate his explicit stipulations. If push came to shove, the Corcoran could adopt the Barnes-ian legal gambit of asking a court for a cy pres judgment that staying in Washington had become impracticable and that a fresh start in another location would be the best way to most closely approximate the founder’s wishes—the move-or-die argument.

The Corcoran has not yet responded to my requests for comment on this legal maneuvering. But Mimi Carter, its senior director of communications, told Montgomery this:

We are reviewing the letter and discussing it with our counsel….We are surprised and distressed by the many false statements and inaccuracies in the letter….We reject all false and unfair accusations about the Corcoran and its trustees, officers and staff.

I believe that a move from Washington would be the wrong move. So do two former directors of the Corcoran. But it may not help Save the Corcoran’s cause to shoot from the hip and issue improbable ultimatums. They need to win this battle on its merits and in the court of public opinion. Whatever they ultimately decide, the Corcoran’s current leadership needs to slow down this process at least until a new, well qualified and committed director is hired to eyeball the problem and contribute fresh ideas to its solution.

an ArtsJournal blog