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Corcoran Cliffhanger: What Will Happen in DC Superior Court Tomorrow? UPDATED

Corcoran Gallery of Art Photo by Lee Rosenbaum Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Corcoran Gallery of Art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

UPDATE:  I’ve now added, below, the page citation from STC’s court filing regarding acceptability of selling art and possible loss of accreditation in so doing, as well as the page citation for STC’s suggestion that the judge hear Reynolds’ views.

At Friday’s D.C. Superior Court hearing on the Corcoran Gallery’s proposed merger with the National Gallery and George Washington University, Judge Robert Okun said he would rule today (Monday) on whether to grant Save the Corcoran’s request for legal standing to oppose the merger in court.

My guess is they won’t get it.

But although STC’s lawyer, Andrew Tulumello, believes the case will essentially be over if his clients lose their quest for standing, I think there could yet be a third way: Judge Okun still needs to decide whether the merger is legally appropropriate, based on his own understanding of the Corcoran’s circumstances and the law regarding cy près. He is under no obligation to follow the Corcoran’s and the Attorney General’s recommendations that he green-light the merger.

The fact that Judge Okun spent 90 minutes “probing for facts and legal precedents regarding the Corcoran’s drastic plan,” as reported Friday by David Montgomery of the Washington Post (in the article I’ve linked at the top of this post), suggests that he may, through his own questioning, fact-finding and analysis, follow STC’s recommendation that further information be obtained and expert advice be sought “on whether there are viable alternatives to the complete dissolution of the Trust.”

It seems clear to me (and perhaps to the judge) that a merger by which the Corcoran will cease to be a museum fails one of the key legal tests for cy près—that the revised conditions seek ‘as nearly as possible’ [the translation of “cy près“] to adhere to the original donor’s stipulations.

What’s missing, to my mind, from Save the Corcoran’s filings is a convincing, well conceived alternative to the proposed merger. Appallingly, STC suggests (p. 11-13) the possibility of “using the proceeds of deaccessioning for operations for a short-term stabilization program,” notwithstanding the likely loss of accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums (not to mention censure by the Association of Art Museum Directors) that would ensue.

Even more astonishing is STC’s suggestion (p. 4) that the judge seek the advice of Wayne Reynolds on “alternatives to the dissolution proposed by the [Corcoran’s] Trustees.” Reynolds, as CultureGrrl readers may remember, proposed that the museum sell “hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art” to create “a huge endowment” (as reported in March 2013 by Montgomery of the Post). “He would de-emphasize the gallery [emphasis added], arguing that it can’t compete with the free, federally funded galleries in town.”

STC misguidedly endorsed Reynolds last March and apparently still supports him. If his ideas are the only viable alternatives to the planned merger, I’ll take the merger, which at least would keep all of the Corcoran’s art in the public domain (although most of it would leave the building).

But I still believe that better ideas can (and must) be developed, starting with the resumption of a search for an experienced, proven museum director and solicitations of advice and assistance from AAM, AAMD and veteran local museum professionals (i.e., the directors of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Phillips Collection).

For more ideas, the judge should (as suggested by STC) hold evidentiary hearings with testimony from Corcoran officials, past and present, as well as museum management experts and officials from the University of Maryland who were involved in its scotched Corcoran deal.

George Washington University (and perhaps also the National Gallery) would like a rush to judgment. Judge Okun shouldn’t give it to them.

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