WASHINGTON — Court proceedings opened Friday in the planned merger of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, one of the nation’s oldest museums, with two larger institutions after years of financial troubles and daunting renovation needs.
District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Robert Okun heard arguments from the group Save the Corcoran, which represents some students, alumni, donors and faculty, who are seeking to intervene and stop the museum and art school’s merger with George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art. Okun questioned the group and lawyers for the Corcoran. The judge said he would consider the case over the weekend before issuing a ruling Monday.
Okun indicated he could be ready to hear further proceedings in the case as soon as next week on an expedited schedule. Lawyers for the Corcoran have said delaying the planned merger could force the museum to begin using the sales of artworks to pay for its operations.
Under a merger plan finalized in May, the Corcoran building would continue operating as a museum, though with less than half its current gallery space. Most of the building would be devoted to the art school, which would become part of George Washington University, and the university would assume responsibility for a major $70 million renovation of the Corcoran’s historic Beaux-Arts building. At least $35 million in Corcoran money would help fund part of the renovation cost.
The National Gallery of Art would acquire the bulk of the Corcoran’s 17,000 artworks and would run the exhibit programs and museum operations. Some artworks would be distributed to other museums with a preference for those in Washington.
The District of Columbia has filed court documents in support of allowing the merger to go forward after reviewing the Corcoran’s financial information and noting its pattern of funding shortfalls.
In court documents, Corcoran lawyers argued that opponents of the merger deal have no standing to intervene and that delaying the merger into the Corcoran college’s next academic year would deplete the museum’s operating funds.
“Indeed, to operate the college for the upcoming academic term would require that the board violate the standards imposed by the relevant museum associations by requiring the use of proceeds from the sale of art to be used for operating expenses,” attorney Charles Patrizia wrote. He added that such a move would destroy “the Corcoran’s reputation as a museum.”
Save the Corcoran has accused the Corcoran’s trustees of financial mismanagement. They asked the judge to provide access to 10 years of audited financial records and suggested the current board of trustees should be removed. The group also is seeking a requirement that the entire art collection be kept together.
In a court filing, attorney Andrew Tulumello dismissed the Corcoran’s warnings that it could lose its museum accreditation if it sells artworks to continue operating as an independent museum.
“While it is obviously not desirable to fall out of the good graces of the (American Alliance of Museums), when the very life of an institution is at stake, the issue must be considered,” Tulumello wrote, adding that museum founder William W. Corcoran would not have elevated museum association membership over “the utter destruction of the institution he created and nurtured.”
Despite the opposition, D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan is supporting the merger. The attorney general represents the public interest when a court considers major changes to a charity’s structure. Nathan also addressed arguments opposing to the Corcoran’s merger.
“Save the Corcoran’s proposal is a short-term fix that will not alleviate the longer term problems that the Corcoran faces,” the attorney general wrote.
Lawyers for the D.C. government concluded the museum’s financial situation prevents it from continuing to operate independently. In supporting the merger, the government seeks to require that no art may be distributed outside of D.C. without approval from the District or the court.
The Corcoran was founded in 1869.