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Judge to decide Corcoran gallery, college independence

| Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Years of financial and management trouble have put the fate of one of the nation's oldest museums and one of the few independent art galleries in Washington in the hands of a judge.

Attorneys presented evidence for six days and, on Wednesday, offered closing arguments in a court case to determine the disposition of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its college.

Trustees of the gallery are seeking to merge the museum and college into George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art, effectively dissolving the museum and handing over its $2 billion in assets. A group of students and faculty have fought the merger in court, arguing there are ways to save the Corcoran.

Witnesses have described a broken fundraising operation, struggling leadership and setbacks from the nation's financial crisis that hobbled the Corcoran in a competitive city full of government-funded museums that offer free admission.

District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Robert Okun is expected to decide the Corcoran's fate before the academic year begins this month at the Corcoran college. The judge must decide whether it's “impossible or impracticable” to continue the 1869 deed of trust that established the museum and whether the merger is the best option.

Corcoran attorney Charles Patrizia said the trustees had no choice but to seek support from larger institutions to preserve the art, galleries and college, citing $28 million in cumulative deficits since 2008 and 40 years of struggles.

If the merger is not approved, Patrizia said, the museum and college would likely lose accreditations because finances are dwindling, and students would become ineligible for federal aid.

Under the trustees' plan, most of the 17,000 artworks would be given to the National Gallery of Art, which would run exhibit programs. Most of the building would be devoted to the art school as part of George Washington University. The Corcoran would give the university at least $35 million from recently sold art to fund initial renovations, and the university would fund further renovations.

The historic Beaux-Arts building near the White House needs at least $80 million in renovations, and the university has committed to preserving the Corcoran legacy, said George Washington University President Steven Knapp, who was called as a witness.

Opponents of the merger object to the giveaway of Corcoran art and real estate and separating the museum and its college.

Attorney Andrew Tulumello argued the Corcoran has $91 million in assets and $17.9 million in liabilities on its last audited statements.

Opponents presented alternatives to preserve the museum and school together, including a proposal from a Washington philanthropist to lead a major capital campaign with a new board to make the Corcoran a world-class center for creativity. That would not require breaking the Corcoran's deed, Tulumello said.

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