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Not a Done Deal: Court Approval Still Needed for Just-Signed Corcoran Agreement

Protected in the agreement: One of the Canova lions guarding the Corcoran Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Protected by the agreement: One of the Canova Lions guarding the Corcoran
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Exactly an hour after the details were published in the Washington Post, this press release from the National Gallery of Art (NGA) hit my inbox, regarding the belated signing of the final agreements (originally slated for Apr. 7) for the planned merger by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Corcoran College of Art + Design with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University (GW). I subsequently also received this FAQs document about plans for the merger.

Under the terms of the agreement, “the Corcoran building will close to the public on or about Oct. 1, 2014 [emphasis added],” to allow for its renovation and the new program of contemporary-art exhibitions to be developed by the NGA. “The National Gallery is planning to hire 20 current Corcoran museum staff members, including curatorial staff,” according to the press release.

There’s one big hurdle yet to be surmounted before this complicated arrangement can move forward: As reported last week by Kriston Capps in the Washington City Paper, the Corcoran must first get D.C. Superior Court approval to deviate from the terms of its charter. This cy pres petition (shades of the Barnes Foundation’s court proceedings) will argue that it has “become impossible or impracticable” to carry out the Corcoran’s mission in the precise manner defined in the charter and that the merger is the closest and best solution to furthering that mission.

As mentioned in the Washington Post article, the D.C. Attorney General will have standing in court to represent the public interest in these court proceedings. Judging from what usually happens in such situations, I doubt the AG will raise any serious objections to the deal.

What I’m wondering, though, is whether the Corcoran students could, if they so chose, also have standing to testify in this court action, just as the Barnes Foundation’s students did in that institution’s protracted proceedings.

There are many new revelations in the details that have been released in the statements linked above. The biggest (but not unexpected) bombshell was revealed not in the official announcement but in David Montgomery‘s Washington Post report: About $35 million from the proceeds of last June’s auction sales of Persian rugs from the Corcoran’s collection will go not to acquisitions, as promised (or even towards the care of the collection), but towards the capital expenses of restoring and repurposing the Corcoran’s down-at-the-heels facility.

What I previously said here, in speculating about what might become of the deaccession proceeds, is worth repeating:

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 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.]”

Montgomery today quoted Loar as saying that because the Corcoran will no longer be a museum and will not be buying art, it should no longer be bound by the the Association of Art Museum Directors’ professional guidelines on deaccessioning. AAMD should forcefully remind the director of the National Gallery (as if long-time AAMD member Earl “Rusty” Powell really needed reminding) that deaccession proceeds must not be used for capital expenses. Period.

The National Gallery, as the new custodian of the Corcoran’s collection, should apply those deaccession funds towards acquisitions of works that it can exhibit in the Corcoran’s spaces or, at the very least, for conserving the works that it will be receiving from the Corcoran.

I know full well that isn’t going to happen. (But I’m willing to be proven wrong.)

UPDATE: As soon as I posted this, a former director of the Corcoran forwarded to me this unsurprising statement issued today by AAMD:

The recently announced proposal by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran College of Art + Design to close both organizations and transfer their assets to the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University respectively is an orderly solution that preserves the Corcoran’s collections and is in the best interests of arts audiences and current and future students.

The Corcoran Gallery is one of the country’s oldest art museums, and was for many decades a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors. While AAMD and its members are saddened that the Corcoran arrived at this juncture, we are grateful to both the National Gallery and George Washington University for stepping forward and working towards a proposed solution that is in the public interest.

UPDATE 2: The statement is now posted on AAMD’s website.

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