The future of the historic Corcoran Gallery of Art, an independently owned art gallery in Washington DC which is one of the oldest museums in the country, sits in the hands of a DC Judge after days of testimony in a merger lawsuit. The proposal, which involves millions of dollars in both endowment funds and value of an extensive art collection, has met vigorous opposition from supporters of the museum who have presented a variety of expert witnesses with specialties ranging from financial planning to art valuation who argued at trial that the Corcoran can continue to exist as an independent gallery as it has for over 150 years.
Corcoran Gallery Merger Trial
After years of financial struggles, trustees of Corcoran have submitted a proposal that requests legal authority to abandon the 1869 deed of trust, which established the institution in favor of a merger with George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art. Opponents to the proposal, made up of current faculty and students of the Corcoran College of Art, challenged the trustees, arguing that there are alternative means to raise capital, better manage the museums financials, and keep Corcoran in its traditional place as an independent art gallery and college.
Under the merger, Corcoran would donate most of its 17,000 artworks to the National Gallery of Art, and give the building, along with $35 million for renovations, to the George Washington University – merging Corcoran’s art college into GWU. Citing $28 million in cumulative deficits since 2008, the Corcoran trustees claim they have no choice but to seek support from stronger institutions and claim the merger will keep the Corcoran tradition alive even if the institution is no longer independent. During trial, the Corcoran trustees presented witnesses who outlined the dire financial situation and promised that the merger would preserve the institution’s history and legacy, cutting at the opponents’ position that the proposal would dissolve the museum for good.
Corcoran Merger Opponents Call Expert Witnesses
Opponents of the Corcoran merger, known as Save the Corcoran (STC), sought to attack the trustees’ argument that the financially insolvent museum had no alternative but to merge with GW and the National Gallery of Art by use of three expert witnesses. The experts specialized in non-profit management, museum oversight and development, financial planning, and donor fundraising. During the 8-day trial, these experts explained that Corcoran’s financial troubles were not inevitable nor irreversible, and that proper non-profit management could undo the trustees’ dysfunction and keep the museum operating independently.
The STC’s experts pointed out that proper management of non-profit museums like Corcoran could keep institutions financially solvent and even successful. During testimony, the experts made use of tutorials on how art museums operate, and pointed to real life examples across the country of art galleries that raised millions in capital through effective donation and development offices that Corcoran lacks. The STC’s expert witnesses also contrasted the failings of Corcoran’s management with successful museum operations and presented testimony that supported alternative plans for the museum’s financial recovery.
Corcoran’s fate now sits in the hands of District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Robert Okun who will consider whether or not the trustee’s request to break the terms of the deed is allowable. With the Corcoran’s art collection and building worth more than $2 billion in assets, the decision will have a significant impact across DC’s cultural and educational community.