Philanthropist Wayne Reynolds calls for saving Corcoran Gallery in court hearings on merger

Wayne Reynolds, a leading Washington philanthropist, laid out an alternative plan in court hearings this week to save one of the nation's oldest museums and its college as a judge considers whether to break up the nearly 150-year-old Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Reynolds 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 founded in 1869 by William W. Corcoran as a place to "encourage American genius." Reynolds testified Wednesday that he could marshal dozens of major donors to save the financially struggling Corcoran and make it a world-class center for creativity and innovation in art and technology.

"People want to be part of something that's special, that's bigger than themselves," Reynolds said, later discussing a list of 23 potential alternate trustees 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 board chairman then rebuffed his interest, canceled meetings and blocked trustees from talking with him.

Instead, Corcoran officials signed a deal to merge with George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art. A judge is now considering whether to approve the proposed merger, which would turn over the art, college and real estate to the two larger institutions. Witnesses have testified those assets are worth about $2 billion.

Corcoran attorney Charles Patrizia disputed Reynolds' version of events late Wednesday, saying his testimony isn't supported by the record.

A key sticking point in talks about the Corcoran's future has been the notion of selling art to fund the museum. Corcoran Chairman Harry Hopper called that "the third rail of American art" because it would 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.

Hopper, who has led the Corcoran as board chairman since 2009, testified that he has spent many hours exploring options after years of financial troubles. The museum had been plagued by a failed campaign in the early 2000s to raise $160 million to build 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." Between 1985 and 2004, the Corcoran had a surplus in only two years. The museum also faces mounting renovation needs with some estimates surpassing $100 million.

So Corcoran officials considered selling the building or partnering with a university or museum. In 2013, they began negotiations with the University of Maryland, which proposed investing $95 million in the Corcoran and taking on the art college, according to documents revealed in court. But months passed, and Maryland officials came back with a drastically reduced offer, Hopper said.

That's when Corcoran officials revisited earlier talks with George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art.

Under a plan finalized in May, the Corcoran building would continue operating as a museum, though with less gallery space. Most of the building would be devoted to the Corcoran School of Art and Design as part of George Washington University, and the university would renovate the historic Beaux-Arts building. The National Gallery of Art would acquire the bulk of the Corcoran's 17,000 artworks and run the exhibit programs.

George Washington University President Steven Knapp testified Tuesday that 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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