I suppose I should shed bitter tears over the decision last month that divides the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its affiliated college between George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art. Any time a donor intent case goes against the wishes of the donor we should be bothered.
But there’s a crucial difference between the destruction of the Barnes Foundation indenture and the demise of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In the Corcoran’s case, the donor abandoned his wishes when he created his gallery in 1869. He created a perpetual organization with no instructions. I read Judge Robert Okun’s decision, and if the donor had imposed restrictions the judge would have cited them, which he did not do. Thus the demise of the Corcoran is only distantly related to the Barnes Foundation case.
Let’s review the similarities and differences between the Barnes Foundation and Corcoran Gallery cases.
Dr. Albert Barnes, who had strong, decisive views on how his collection should be managed and governed, created the Barnes Foundation. His Deed of Trust is a decisive statement on what he thought about what his foundation should do. His wishes were systematically destroyed by a hostile takeover of the foundation by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Annenberg and Lenfest Foundations.
W. W. Corcoran, whose views on what his museum should be are mostly unknown, created the Corcoran Gallery of Art. While I have not read his entire Deed of Trust, as far as I can tell, the only statement in the deed where he states his desire to create an organization in perpetuity that should be devoted to celebrating “American genius.” I also wrote about Corcoran in By Their Bootstraps and found little evidence about what Corcoran wanted his museum to be. Corcoran imposed no restrictions on how his museum should be managed or what sort of art it could acquire or what the curriculum of the affiliated college should be. As a result all that survived of Corcoran’s vision in the twenty-first century was his name and the Corcoran Gallery and College’s independence.
Judge Stanley Ott allowed some of the Barnes Foundation students limited standing. These students argued that that the foundation should be preserved as an educational institution devoted to Barnes’s philosophy of art, which seems to me to be unusual but not nutty. Judge Ott ruled against the students at every turn, most notably in his decision of 2004, which paved the way for the Barnes’s move. Judge Ott stuck to his 2004 decision despite three years of intense argument followed by four more years of fitful argument.
Judge Robert Okun allowed some of the Corcoran College students standing, possibly because if he had not there would have been no legal opposition to the Corcoran division. These students argued that they liked their college and didn’t want to be part of George Washington University. They called a limited number of witnesses, including no one from the National Gallery of Art. Judge Okun, having dutifully determined there were two sides to the case, voided the Corcoran Deed of Trust on impracticality and allowed George Washington University to take the students and the National Gallery of Art to take the art.
The Pew, Annenberg, and Lenfest foundations, having persuaded Judge Ott in 2004, dutifully gave a lot of money to the Barnes. They then stayed in the background even when the new Barnes Foundation opened in 2012, a feat that must have been very hard for Pew president Rebecca Rimel, a noted publicity hog. They then went on to other projects: Pew becoming a liberal Washington think tank, Annenberg moving to California, and Lenfest actually staying in Philadelphia and spending out its endowment fighting poverty in that city.
The National Gallery of Art and George Washington University aren’t going anywhere, and having the Corcoran building with some of its art in it is better than in 2012, when the Corcoran board loudly announced that the museum was broke and would have to move somewhere. (They never had the nerve to figure out where.) Hopefully the National Gallery will keep much of the great collection of French art donated to the Corcoran by Sen. William Clark and his daughter Huguette.
Lee Rosenbaum, a smart arts blogger who I mostly agree with, had a piece in the Wall Street Journal last month arguing for the Corcoran’s preservation. She would be right except that donor intent ceased to be an issue with the Corcoran over 100 years ago. The proof of this is in the most controversial moment of the Corcoran’s history, when in 1989 they cancelled an exhibition of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, no one asked, “What would W. W. Corcoran have thought of this decision?” The question is nonsense, for W. W. Corcoran’s ideas, whatever they were, have long ceased to matter. Unlike Barnes, he left no restrictions for successive generations to repudiate.
It’s always sad when a corporation or a museum that’s over 100 years old goes out of business. But just as Irving Kristol famously only gave two cheers for capitalism, I’m only shedding one tear for the fall of the Corcoran.