WASHINGTON — One of the nation’s oldest museums and its art college will be allowed to merge with two larger institutions, effectively dissolving one of the few independent art galleries in the nation’s capital, a judge ruled Monday.
The ruling by District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Robert Okun determines the future of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its college after years of financial and managerial trouble. The decision comes days before the Corcoran college’s new school year is to begin.
Trustees of the Corcoran have sought to merge the museum and college into George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art, effectively dissolving the museum as an independent institution and handing over its $2 billion in assets.
A group of students and faculty fought the merger, arguing the Corcoran can be saved with better leadership, philanthropic support or possibly a better partnership model. Witnesses in the court case described an organization in limbo with a broken fundraising operation, struggling board, turnover in leadership and setbacks from the nation’s financial crisis.
In a city full of government-funded museums, the Corcoran was one of the few independent art galleries and was celebrated for its adventurous programs in the past.
Okun had to decide whether to allow a break in the Corcoran’s 1869 deed of trust that established the museum to allow for the merger. It was a legal question of whether it was “impossible or impracticable” to continue the original deed and whether the merger plan was the best alternative.
“This court finds it painful to issue an order that effectively dissolves the Corcoran as an independent entity,” Okun wrote. “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.”
Oken wrote that two internationally recognized institutions with strong commitments to art and education had agreed to step in to sustain the college and art collection under the Corcoran name.
Under the merger plan, most of the 17,000 artworks would be given to the National Gallery of Art, which would run exhibit programs in less than half the current gallery space. Most of the building would be devoted to the art school as part of George Washington University. The Corcoran would also give the university at least $35 million from recently sold art to pay for initial renovations, and the university would pay for future renovations.