Mr. Corcoran and the Trustees: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, a petition for Cy Pres, and the fate of an institution

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 10.19.23 AMBy Caroline Camp

The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. began as the private art collection of Mr. William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888). In the mid-19th Century, Corcoran would host public viewings of his collection but, given the growing number of artworks and visitors, he decided to create a formal structure to support the collection and his own personal mission of promoting the arts. In 1869, he executed a Deed of Trust with the charitable purpose of maintaining an institution in D.C. dedicated to art and “encouraging the American genius.” The trustees obtained federal charter and later, in 1890, established what is now the Corcoran College of Art + Design in a further effort to fulfil the intent of Mr. Corcoran’s original Deed.

Fast forward to 2014, nearly 150 years after Mr. Corcoran created this institution. According to the Corcoran’s website, the public Gallery holds over 16,000 artworks and the College has 615 undergraduate or graduate students enrolled. Although these figures look healthy, the institution’s corresponding financial figures appear less so. Currently, the fate of the institution hangs in the balance between two competing forces – Mr. Corcoran’s 19th century intentions and the 21st century financial realities. A court case is pending before the Superior Court of the D.C. Civil Division to determine which force shall prevail.

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In 2012, amidst rumors of financial and other struggles, the Corcoran’s trustees released a statement which acknowledged that the institution was “struggling with the effects of a difficult economy” and considering the “available options,” which included the sale of their historical home (the Flagg building). Two years later, the New York Times reaffirmed that the Corcoran was facing “Facing mounting debts, a shrinking endowment and tens of millions of dollars in renovations.” This coincided with an announcement from the trustees that the Corcoran was proposing to enter into a partnership with the George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art. Under the proposal, the George Washington University would take over the operation of the College, and the National Gallery of Art would take responsibility for the Gallery’s contemporary/modern art collections. Remaining art works would be donated to other museums.

On its face, the trustees’ proposal violates the initial charter that established the Corcoran, and seemingly runs afoul of Mr. Corcoran’s intentions behind creating the entity.  In order to proceed, the trustees must prove before federal court that the original objectives created by Mr. Corcoran are impossible to carry out and that the proposal is the closest alternative.  To do so, the trustees filed a Cy Pres petition with the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Civil Division.  “The doctrine of cy pres is an equitable remedy intended to modify a charitable use while preserving a charitable purpose,” the District of Columbia states in its response to the petition.  The District supports the petition, indicating that the proposal is necessary to keep the institution in D.C.

Not everyone supports the proposal, however.  A collection of such individuals opposed to the trustees’ proposal, including Corcoran students and employees, banded together to form Save the Corcoran.  The organization filed a twenty-page brief with legal arguments and exhibits in response to the petition, requesting a delay in the Cy Pres ruling.   In response, Judge Okun ruled on July 21, 2014 that current students and employees have legal standing to challenge the petition, but other members of Save the Corcoran do not. Proceedings were extended so that both sides could present arguments.

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How should the Corcoran best realize the charitable purposes set out in a document from 1869 and the intentions of an absent founder? How should these intentions be realized in the midst of serious financial difficulties? Similar questions were posed in the contentious case of the Barnes Collection, and many commentators have noted this parallel, including Randy Kennedy at the New York Times. In that case, after several years of arguments, Mr. Barnes’ original intentions for his art collection were modified so that the Barnes Foundation could overcome financial difficulties. While Judge Okun decision was pending, University of Maryland indicated its willingness to assist with preservation of the Corcoran legacy, and offered partnership to Corcoran.

In the closing arguments on August 6, Andrew Tulumello, representing the challengers to the petition, argued “There is no historical precedent for what the trustees — who, like generations of trustees, are only temporary stewards of this institution — are preparing to do here[.]” Charles Patrizia, representing the trustees, countered that the proposal is the only way forward, and “there is no white knight” that can supply the money necessary to save the institution.

On 19 August 2014, Judge Okun approved the merger initially supported by the trustees. The Court found that “The GW/NGA proposal is the best way to effectuate Mr. Corcoran’s original intent, given the Corcoran’s current financial circumstances and the option that actually are available to the Trustees at this time.” Full opinion is available here.  No appeal expected.

Sources:

About the Author: Caroline Camp, Esq., one of the founding members of Center for Art Law. She specializes in intellectual property and art law issues,Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 10.19.23 AM and she can be reached at carovcampATgmail.com.

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