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Opponents offer 2 options for saving independent Corcoran Gallery in court hearings on merger

Corcoran Gallery Future-1.jpg

FILE - This May, 15, 2014 file photo shows the entrance of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. A leading Washington philanthropist is presenting an alternate plan to save one of the nation’s oldest museums in court hearings this week over whether to break up the trust from 1869 that established the Corcoran Gallery of Art and later its college. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf, File) (The Associated Press)

Opponents of a plan to break up Washington's nearly 150-year-old Corcoran Gallery of Art presented two alternatives in court this week to preserve an independent museum and art school as a judge considers its proposed merger with two larger institutions.

The University of Maryland president and a leading Washington philanthropist described their past discussions with the Corcoran board about reinvigorating the financially struggling museum and college. They expressed willingness to restart talks to turn it around.

However, the Corcoran board struck a deal this year to merge the art college into George Washington University and give the bulk of 17,000 artworks to the National Gallery of Art. The Corcoran's assets are estimated at $2 billion.

A judge must decide whether it's "impossible or impractical" to continue the Corcoran's 1869 deed of trust and whether the merger proposal is the best alternative. Hearings will continue next week.

University of Maryland President Wallace Loh said he had no plans to intervene after his negotiations for a Corcoran partnership failed. But he testified he would be willing to make another proposal within 45 days that would maintain the Corcoran's independence. The university was prepared to invest $46 million for operations and renovation costs, and the Corcoran would become an affiliated professional art school.

Loh said he's trying to lift the arts within a major research university and could help the Corcoran recruit more students.

"The whole idea is to keep the gallery and the college together. It is the combining of culture and education that makes it so special," Loh said. "We don't want a takeover. We already have a liberal arts program."

Wayne Reynolds, a leading Washington philanthropist, also laid out an alternative. He previously led a $54 million campaign to turn around Ford's Theatre and said he sees similar potential in the museum next to the White House that was founded by William W. Corcoran as a place to "encourage American genius." Reynolds said he could marshal dozens of major donors to save the Corcoran and make it a world-class center for creativity in art and technology.

"People want to be part of something that's special, that's bigger than themselves," Reynolds said, later mentioning 23 potential alternate trustees who he said would help him turn the Corcoran around. "It's all about vision and leadership."

However, Reynolds testified that in dealing with the Corcoran over the past two years, he observed a chaotic "goat rodeo" behind the scenes. In late 2012, he said Corcoran officials asked him to become their next chairman then rebuffed his interest, canceled meetings and blocked trustees from talking with him.

A key sticking point has been the notion of selling art to fund museum operations. Corcoran Chairman Harry Hopper called that "the third rail of American art" because it could endanger the museum's accreditation. Reynolds said he proposed selling some art and putting the focus on the college instead. Artworks kept in storage could be sold, he said, in order to buy contemporary art that people want to see.

What the Corcoran needs most is vision for its purpose and future in order to raise money and survive, said Paul Johnson, an expert in museum fundraising at the consulting firm Alexander Haas. He testified that Hopper's approach had failed.

"His vision of the Corcoran is to destroy the Corcoran," Johnson said. "This board has given up."

Hopper, who has led the Corcoran since 2009, testified that he looked hard for options after years of financial troubles. The museum had a failed campaign in the early 2000s to raise $160 million for an addition designed by Frank Gehry and later struggled during the nation's financial crisis, he said.

A 2011 consultant's report found the Corcoran "has struggled to find a successful business model for 40 years or more." It also faces mounting renovation needs. Some estimates surpass $100 million.

Under the current merger plan, the Corcoran would give at least $35 million from recently sold art to George Washington University to fund initial building renovations. The university would fund further renovations over time. The National Gallery of Art would run exhibit programs in a smaller gallery space.

George Washington University President Steven Knapp said the deal saves the Corcoran legacy and is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create something truly powerful" with a new model for arts education.

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Follow Brett Zongker on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DCArtBeat .

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