Arts Desk

Why Isn’t Jayme McLellan Teaching at the Corcoran This Fall?

For the last two years, D.C. gallerist Jayme McLellan has been a public face of a group trying to thwart the dissolution of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design. In recent months, however, she was also looking forward to returning to the school in another role: professor.

Unfortunately, the Corcoran didn't share her enthusiasm:  Until last Friday, McLellan was slated to teach a class at the college this fall. Her course was in the online catalog, and with 11 registered students, it was one seat away from being full.

Then, less than three weeks before the start of the fall semester, her pending contract was pulled—a development that McLellan alleges is retaliation for her activism.

The founding director of Civilian Art Projects, McLellan designed the course, "Professional Practices for Fine Artists," in 2009, and it became a required class for one of the BFA programs. After teaching for a few years as an adjunct professor, McLellan left the Corcoran in 2012 because, she says, "crazy stuff was going on": the building was possibly up for sale, management was disorganized, and there was loud construction going on just outside her classroom, where a new office building was going up in the parking lot the Corcoran had sold. By the time she left, she'd already started the activist group Save the Corcoran, which in recent months has mounted a campaign against the division of the Corcoran between the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University.

This April, Lynn Sures, chair of the Corcoran's fine arts department, asked McLellan to return to teach the class in September. McLellan agreed, hoping there'd be new leadership by the time classes began. Sures included McLellan on a group email to all adjunct professors last week, asking if they'd received their contracts. McLellan, who also received an email containing professor orientation materials, responded that she hadn't.

According to McLellan, Sures informed her last Thursday that her contract wasn't going through and that her class had been canceled on the orders of Corcoran Director and President Peggy Loar. Loar directed my request for comment to Mimi Carter, the Corcoran's vice president of communications and marketing, who told me that she wouldn't comment on individual personnel issues. Sures didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

"No one can remember this ever happening, when a museum director overrides the faculty chair and pulls out of the contract of one of her hires," McLellan says. "Faculty members are angry. People are writing city Council and writing trustees."

In keeping with faculty protocol, McLellan says her only recourse is to appeal to the Corcoran's in-house counsel, David Julyan, and Loar—both of whom she wrote asking for an explanation by this Friday. McLellan says that all other adjunct fine arts faculty received their contracts last week, and the fall semester is going ahead as scheduled. GW's provost has promised that, if and when GW takes over the Corcoran's college, it will hire 125 of the school's full- and part-time professors. Whether the National Gallery and GW get to divvy up the Corcoran depends on a D.C. judge's approval of a cy-près petition to amend the Corcoran's charter; he'll issue a ruling later this month.

Why was McLellan's contract killed at the 11th hour? "Because of my activism," she says. "Why else? I'm perfectly qualified. I teach the class at MICA; I've taught it at AU and St. Mary’s. I’ve taught lectures and seminars and workshops for 18 years, and only ever had stellar evaluations from students. They have no reason [to terminate me]."

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • antigrowth

    Let's see- she left the Corcoran in 2012 because she did not like what was going on there; but the operative word is LEFT of her own accord. The contract under discussion was PENDING. Deciding not to do something when there is no contract in place is very different from canceling one or even not renewing.

    Your article clearly indicates that she was very unhappy with what was going on and has clearly been opposed to the proposed new arrangement. I would think the Corcoran was well within its power to not hire someone who is so clearly unhappy with the organization. I wonder why she would want to teach there since it is a disaster by her own description.

    Sounds like the traditional case of wanting your cake and eating it too. In 2012 she got in her huff and drove off; it is not retaliation to decide not to offer her a place to park again.

    Even if the judge rules against the merger, from what I have read all he can do is say 'no I don't agree'. He has no power to change or restructure the board. So the net result will be more years of mess. The board could well decide to return the Corcoran to the strict limits of the original indenture- American art only, gallery only, no college, sell off European art, shrink the gallery to a size that can be supported. I hope the board would take a broader view than this, but who knows.

    Sad all the same.

  • wat?

    Having a hard time finding the part I'm supposed to get in a huff about. Pretty sure an institution deciding not to offer a position to someone who is actively and publicly working against the current goals the board has decided on is just good business.

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  • RealPolitik

    The huff is that the chairperson (typically the authority for hiring adjunct faculty in most academic departments) offered her a job and McClellan accepted the offer. The idea that a dean or director or President of a college would interfere in this process challenges the very core principle of intellectual freedom, a privilege fiercely defended in most departments (and for good reason). And what about the chairperson, doesn't this undermine her authority, not to mention put her in an embarrassing situation? This stuff does happen and usually is swept under the rug by poorly managed institutions, DC is an at will state (district) and authorities do not have to explain or justify their actions in dismissing staff, but massive damage is done when they do so arbitrarily and capriciously (to use the requisite jargon) as in this case.

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