Arts Desk

The Corcoran Is Officially Splitting

corc-1After decades of financial struggles, a protracted debate over unanswered questions, a court filing, an activist group's Hail Mary, and drama in the courtroom, the Corcoran as we know it will dissolve as planned. Judge Robert Okun handed down an order today approving the Corcoran's cy-près petition; the institution will essentially split in two, with the college nesting under the auspices of George Washington University and the much of the gallery's art collection going to the National Gallery of Art.

Okun was tasked with parsing the directives set forth by Corcoran founder William Corcoran in his 1869 charter—since the institution is a nonprofit, its board of trustees needed the court's permission to split up the institution. In the full opinion, Okun raises doubts about how Corcoran would have taken the news.

... the Court is aware that the GW/NGA proposal is inconsistent with Mr. Corcoran’s intent in one important respect—unlike the UMD proposal from February 2014, the GW/NGA proposal effectively eliminates the Corcoran as an independent institution, leaving behind only an untethered Board of Trustees to advise GW and NGA on future plans for the College and Gallery. Undoubtedly, Mr. Corcoran would not be pleased by this turn of events.

But Okun seems confident that GWU and the National Gallery of Art will be competent stewards of the Corcoran's legacy.

It seems likely, however, that [Corcoran] would be pleased to see that the College will be preserved through its partnership with the very university to which he donated both property and his company’s archives, and where he served as Chairman of the Board for several years, and that the Gallery will be preserved through its partnership with one of the country’s pre-eminent art institutions.

The opinion is offered as a between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place decision that, while imperfect, is the best option under the circumstances.

"This Court finds it painful to issue an Order that effectively dissolves the Corcoran as an independent entity. But this Court would find it even more painful to deny the relief requested and allow the Corcoran to face its likely demise—the likely dissolution of the College, the closing of the Gallery, and the dispersal of the Gallery’s entire collection...In sum, this Court believes that approval of the Trustees’ proposal is necessary, given the Corcoran’s financial circumstances, and further believes that the proposal properly effectuates Mr. Corcoran’s original intent to encourage '"American Genius in the production and preservation of works pertaining to the ‘Fine Arts,’ and kindred objects.'"

Save the Corcoran, the intervening activist group led by Jayme McLellan (whose pending fall teaching contract was recently canceled by the Corcoran) that mounted a campaign against the split, registered a simple statement of disappointment on Facebook: "The Corcoran as we know it is gone. We fought the good fight."

UPDATE Aug. 18, 5:41 p.m. Save the Corcoran's counsel, Drew Tulumello, has released a statement on behalf of the coalition. “While this is not our vision for the Corcoran, we received a full and fair trial and are grateful that we were given the opportunity to defend the legacy of one of the oldest and most beloved museums in the nation. We wish GW and the National Gallery all the best as the new stewards of Mr. Corcoran’s gifts.”

Read Okun's full opinion and order below.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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