2016-10-15 Corcoran Collection National Gallery of Art

Remembering the Consequences of Mishandling Art.

Ruth Osborne

Every so often it is useful – indeed, instructing – to take a glance at the current environment in the art world and see what recent developments show about what the future holds. For ArtWatch, this means considering again the consequences of collections across the country that we have seen dismembered or mishandled over the past few years. We cannot remain in the dark about the damages done to art when its appointed stewards forsake their responsibility. Keeping one eye always open and aware is the key keeping in check the mishandling and greed that always has the potential to consume what unique artistic and cultural heritage has been handed down to us.

Washington, D.C.

2016-12-19 Save the Corcoran

Save the Corcoran website

The former Corcoran Gallery and College of Art + Design has been reeling since its dissolution two years ago when the collection was handed over to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the art students and faculty were brought under the mantle of George Washington University. Both have suffered at the hands of the behemoth institutions that now own them. Corcoran College faculty and students are experiencing a culture clash as GW, a primarily research-led university, enforces curriculum changes and struggles to connect with the non-capitalist-driven founding principles of the College. Faculty did not even review student portfolios for its first admissions  process with GW. Relates one student: “At one point, a career counselor went into a Corcoran class and told students that art was a hobby and to look for real jobs.”  And just this May, after only 1 school year under GW’s wing, Corcoran professors experienced massive layoffs – over half its faculty – including several department heads. This not only left many students concerned for who would come on next to continue guiding their artistic education, but it also left course listings for this fall’s semester looking rather without direction, as they lacked any named professors for some time. Said one student of the faculty cuts: “This is atrocious on the part of the GW administration and it is not something that should be swept under the rug.”

2016-10-15 Corcoran Collection National Gallery of Art

Corcoran Collection installed at the NGA 2015. Courtesy: Molly Riley / AP.

Meanwhile, the 17,000 piece Corcoran collection was removed from its historic landmark Beaux-Arts home of 117 years and sifted through by NGA staff with much secrecy as to what made the cut for accession into their collection and why. Many in the arts world have questioned the NGA’s aims to “fill gaps” in their own collection; while the larger issue has been raised of what it means that one of the first independent museums in the country, with its own unique collecting history under its founder William Wilson Corcoran, to be removed from its unique context and stuck within a larger federally-owned collection. The context of late 19th century American art and collecting, with Corcoran’s own relationships with artists and dealers, is lost. The personality of the collection, its social and economic context, is harder and harder for the viewer to grasp at.

Wilmington, DE

2016-10-15 Delaware Art Museum

Delaware Art Museum

The Delaware Art Museum, founded in 1912 with the one of the nation’s most extensive Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood collections, in addition to that of Brandywine River School and Ashcan School artists, has gone through several deaccession sales and a blacklisting by the American Associations of Museums in an attempt to pay debts on their 2005 expansion.  Ironically, an upcoming fundraiser for a local non-profit being hosted at the Museum is titled “Now You See It, Now You Don’t”; the evenings program will have guests solve the mystery of a “masterpiece” that has gone missing from the Museum’s walls. Now, the curatorial staff must work under a Board whose respect for the stewardship of a collection and its founding mission is questionable. Meanwhile, the dismissal from the AAM network is not boding well for their line-up of exhibitions and loans from other AAM-accredited institutions, whose previous agreements for collaboration are now invalid. Meanwhile, the pay-off for selling the selected works – one by Alexander Calder, one by Andrew Wyeth, another by Winslow Homer, and another by William Holman Hunt – wasn’t ideal. While the Calder fetched its estimate, the Hunt fell far below what was expected and the Homer and Wyeth were forced to sell privately. Though it has been over a year since the last two were sold, their prices remain undisclosed, even after inquiry by ArtWatch. Their most recent financial report relates that the second two deaccession sales yielded $9.5 mil in proceeds, so, considering the $4.25 ($4.9 with premium) brought in by the Hunt and the $10.6 mil brought in by the Calder, the Museum still falls at least $5 mil short of their over $30 mil+ deficit. The Museum also received a new CEO and Executive Director this April, Sam Sweet, who, unlike the former CEO and CFO Mike Miller, actually possesses an art history degree (from Columbia). Miller will return to his formerly held position as part-time CFO.

2016-10-15 Winslow Homer Milking Time

Winslow Homer, Milking Time, 1875. Private Collection (formerly, Delaware Art Museum).

*Interesting side note: Sweet also served as the Corcoran Gallery of Art/College of Art + Design’s COO from January 2008 thru June 2009, a rather short stint just before the cracks in the armor of the now defunct institution were beginning to show in 2011-2012. In fact, the deaccession and sale of 10 paintings from the Corcoran’s collection was announced under his directorship as the first “rare move” in a series of steps “toward refining the museum’s focus and providing funds for purchasing future works.” This announcement came after failed attempts to raise funds for repairs, to rise above its recurring $1 mil+ deficits, and, of course, an “ambitious” $200 mil expansion by Frank Gehry.

Auburn, NY

2016-10-15 Seward House Museum

William Seward House in Auburn, NY. Courtesy: Preservation Association of Central New York.

The Seward House Museum in upstate New York had kept a central painting in the collection – Thomas Cole’s Portage Falls on the Genesee (1839) – in storage for over two years after new owners of the museum, the Emerson Foundation, began to consider its sale in favor of the millions with which it could help spill over into its own pockets. This resulted in a replica of the original painting being left on display in the museum while the original languished in storage while being considered for sale.

2016-10-15 Thomas Cole Portage Falls

Thomas Cole, Portage Falls on the Genesee, 1839. Courtesy: Emerson Foundation / Seward House Museum.

News of its sale has not yet emerged, but a recent inquiry to the Museum staff revealed that it is still in storage and there are no plans to return it to its historic setting in Seward’s home. Meanwhile, one of its popular tours, called “The He(art) of the Seward House”, continues to be offered to visitors, though a central piece in the collection has been potentially forever replaced by a “museum-quality” replica”. According to their website, the tour promises guests a view into “the fabulous and fascinating artwork of the Seward House moves from the backdrop to the foreground in this art-centric tour. Learn how aesthetics framed the world – and home – of the Seward family, as well as which artists and art movements caught their eyes.” Meanwhile, a grassroots group committed to returning the Cole painting to the Seward House reported in March that the New York Attorney General’s office (who had been active in prohibiting the sale of the painting back in 2013) was still ” ‘actively’ involved in the discussion regarding a ‘solution’ to this issue.” We encourage you to write Asst. AG James Sheehan, Charities Bureau Chief (Office of the Attorney General, The Capitol, Albany, NY 12224-0341) in support of returning the original painting to its historic home.


New York, NY

2016-10-15 National Acadamy Museum New York

One of the two National Academy Museum buildings on 5th Ave. Courtesy: National Academy Museum & School via Facebook.

The National Academy Museum went through its own deaccessioning crises back in 2009 to pay for general operating expenses and owed debts. That fiasco ended in a loss of two important Hudson River School works, works that marked the basis for the Academy’s founding in 1825 New York City, in addition to sanctions from the American Association of Museum Directors. But only recently was it forced to sell its historic townhouses on 5th Ave. in favor of putting its works in storage until they can settle in a supposedly less-expensive new home. This simply looks like a black hole for the historic collection, which points to a crucial point in the development of the arts in the young United States and which, if broken up like the Corcoran was when it couldn’t support its own up-keep, would lose this value.


National Gallery of Art. Courtesy - Boomsbeat

Corcoran Questions: Mistrust as the Collection is Dismembered in Washington.

Ruth Osborne
2015-01-30 - Corcoran School of the Arts & Design

Corcoran School of the Arts & Design website.

The new page for the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design on George Washington University’s website uses an image from the original landmarked Beaux-Arts gallery on 17th St. NW to connect with the history of what was the oldest art museum in D.C.. This year, the School and the Gallery embark upon a disjointed future, being now partly the property of GWU, and partly the property of the National Gallery of Art.

Over the past few weeks, criticism of the Corcoran’s new caretakers has emerged. This is, however, to be expected, as voices against the Corcoran’s dissolution in August 2014 were rather strong.

The Corcoran’s 17,000-piece collection is currently being filtered through the hands of the NGA with a great deal of secrecy. Granted, this could be maintained with the defense that both are private non-profits that are, by law, not required to make public any decisions or policies. However, Peggy McGlone at the Washington Post has questioned this secrecy, revealing the connection of various group interests with the Corcoran’s future. With over $100 million in public funds, supplied through the federal government, where is the place of the public trust in this process? As one interviewee has demanded, “How can a federal institution not be transparent?” The lack of transparency has, unfortunately, led to a good deal of confusion and mistrust from the arts community awaiting the NGA’s reveal of their final selections.

National Gallery of Art. Courtesy - Boomsbeat

National Gallery of Art. Courtesy: Boomsbeat.

Lee Rosenbaum has also questioned the lack of a known timeframe for the NGA to sift through the Corcoran’s works. Comments from the NGA suggest their interest in selecting the best works for “filling gaps” in their own collection, with the rest to be divvied up amongst other museums that have the right connections to tug on. What is also missing is a clear plan for the GWU’s promised renovations of the 17th St. former gallery building. Concerns surrounding the treatment of this landmarked site has also drawn together D.C. preservationists and the Save the Corcoran group in order to insist upon proper maintenance and preservation. Despite throwing off any concern for public trust, these voices appear to be demanding consideration.

These and other questions remaining as the Corcoran continues into an unknown future lead us to the larger issue of the corporatization of art collections and museums. This century has thus far witnessed the few behemoths at the top expand, while the relevance of the small historic house museum is questioned. Meanwhile, historic collections spaces are being relinquished by museums that, interestingly enough, are are rather important players in the world of art. Take, for instance, the Whitney’s recent long-term lease of its historic Breuer building to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the removal of the Barnes collection to from its original home in Merion, PA to Philadelphia. These two cases in particular are linked to issues of insufficient funding and board management. Be on the lookout, as there is more to be seen in the months to come concerning how artistic and cultural heritage are stewarded into the 21st century.

2015-01-30 - National Gallery Washington DC The Mall

Aerial view of the Mall, with the NGA in the distance on the left. Courtesy: Joshua Brousel.

2014-08-21 - Corcoran Gallery of Art

Another One Bites the Dust: Corcoran to Dissolve and Collection to be Dismembered

Ruth Osborne
2014-08-21 - Corcoran Gallery of Art

Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. Courtesy: Lee Sandstead.jpg

How can one of the Capital’s oldest art museums die out after nearly 150 years of existence? How can it be “as near as possible” to the original donor’s intentions that his collection be dismantled by an array of larger local institutions?

One would hope this would not be possible, that those who care for and support the arts in America would not allow this to happen. But it seems almost inevitable, considering what’s been happening both here and in the U.K. over the past few years after the recent economic crisis, that the arts are the first to get shafted.

Now that D.C. Superior Court Judge Okun has pronounced Corcoran’s merger, and subsequent dissolution, as acceptable within the bounds of cy près doctrine, the National Gallery of Art in D.C. will have its pick of the 16,000 works in the collection, while  GWU will take over the College of Art + Design and its historic building on 17th Street. While it is unclear just how this “collaboration” will “make the Corcoran collection more accessible to more people in the nation’s capital,” this is nonetheless the NGA Director Earl Powell III’s energetic statement on the merger. Lee Rosenbaum has reported thoroughly on the matter, and in so doing drawn an interesting comparison between this and another important ruling from 2004 on the severing of the Barnes Collection from its original home in Merion, PA:

“Interestingly, the Judge Okun cited both the Barnes decision and the Fisk decision as precedents for his determinations, so we now have a growing body of case law that weighs against honoring donor intent in cases where the current leadership, however inadequate, throws up its hands and cries, ‘Impracticable!’ In his conclusion, the judge suggested that he had faced an either/or choice of granting cy prèsor allowing the Corcoran “to face its likely demise.” But with more time and enhanced leadership, there might have been a third way.”


The Corcoran Trustees cleverly presented this merger as the only option beyond deaccessioning works to help the budget deficit, an action that would warrant harsh censure from the AAM & AAMD. As Nicholas ODonnell points out on his Art Law Report blog, this ruling of deaccession as a “non-starter” is sure to make an impact for any future court disputes involving museum collections. As other recent museums in peril have considered deaccessioning all too willingly, including the Art Institute of Chicago as of this week, public opinion of late has been opened to the dangers of this brand of mismanagement. In the end, this effectively steered the ruling away from seriously considering any financial mismanagement on the part of the Trustees. One surely does not encounter a multi-million dollar deficit just overnight.

2014-08-01 - Corcoran Gallery Washington DC

The Cost of Caring for Art: Art Law’s Role in the Corcoran Case.

Ruth Osborne
2014-08-01 - Corcoran Gallery Washington DC

Corcoran Gallery in D.C. Courtesy: New York Times.

Several similar battles have emerged this year in the museum world; battles over the mismanagement of important art collections and the unfortunate consequences for the artworks involved.

In the case of the Delaware Art Museum, a collection has begun to disintegrate in the interest of keeping the doors open to the public after owing millions in bond debt after a major building expansion. Meanwhile, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. is struggling to maintain its collection by joining with the National Gallery and abandoning its historic 1897 Beaux-Arts building just steps from the White House.

In each of these instances, items of cultural and artistic significance are being forsaken due to responsibility falling on the shoulders of those unwilling or unqualified to provide strong enough support. Caring for art is not – nor has ever been – a simple task. But as the beginnings of the Corcoran court case have illustrated this week, it demands highly discerning Board leadership and financial management. The Delaware Board using deaccessions as an answer to refilling a museum’s budget goes against the fundamental purpose of a museum to care for and preserve works of art for the public. Works are treated like fluid assets and bargaining chips, not priceless cultural artifacts to be cared for. Owners are neglecting their call to be stewards of these collections, instead treating them like cultural capital to be traded.  In the on-going struggle between bankrupt Detroit’s creditors and the DIA’s supporters, art is being asked to clean up after a city government that could not keep itself afloat.

2014-08-01 - Merchant's House Museum Manhattan

Merchants House in Lower Manhattan. Courtesy: The Villager.

Across the Atlantic, the Maeght Foundation in France has a new Director looking to make up for its budget deficit by auctioning off works from its collection, which he believes would not be much affected by deaccessions. Director Olivier Kaeppelin “wants the foundation to be free to sell works. The collection is valuable.”  Furthermore, a study by France’s Ministry of Culture this July identified the shortcomings of more than 1200 museums nationwide in caring properly for their collections. From the curator’s and collection manager’s perspective, this comes down to having the right storage and staff to care for the objects. But that all depends on a museum’s money being spent in the right way, and on fundraising that keeps collections preservation as the ultimate goal, rather than new gallery expansions.

But who is to answer if the governing board in question fails to account for their lack of good stewardship? Where a museum’s trustees fail, other major donors and supporters can step up (as in the case of the DIA and Corcoran). But what happens when outside support systems fail as well? Here in New York, the month of April signaled the final nail in the coffin of the Merchant House Museum’s fight against damage from new construction next door. The state institution charged with defending the interests of art and historic preservation was unable to prevent a new hotel from going up. Now, with 6-1 approval from New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the 180 year-old landmarked building and superior interior plasterwork will now suffer greater damage for the sake of a new hotel that surely could have been built elsewhere in the trendy NoHo neighborhood.

The law is the last system in place to defend the interests of a collection. The role of art law often ends up being essential in deciding how museums and historic sites fight to preserve their collection. It sets parameters for what should be expected of a museum board or director; it determines what should be expected from those in such positions and creates an arena in which they can be called to account for their actions. For the Corcoran, the question of what will happen remains to be answered by the D.C. Superior Court. The battle over the Corcoran’s proposed dissolution will be sure to set precedent for (inevitable) future struggles over museum collections. Questions of board mismanagement, the appointment of an unqualified director, and an inability to fundraise have thus far been raised. Representing the “Save the Corcoran” group, lawyer Andrew S. Tulmello has even gone so far as to argue: “the museum trustees have long operated as if the Corcoran had no future.” ArtWatch will be keeping tabs on what is sure to be a serious debate over board and directorial ethics, items coming under greater scrutiny in today’s changing non-profit development and donor climate.


2014-03-07 - Corcoran Beaux-Arts lion

Corcoran Fiasco: Troublesome Plans for the Capitol’s Oldest Art Museum

Ruth Osborne
2016-12-19 Save the Corcoran

Save the Corcoran website.

It seems there will be no end to the ravaging of great collections by museum boards without any other hope in sight. Just as the financial distress with the Barnes yanked this famous collection from its roots in Merion, PA, to a pretentiously zen warehouse in Philadelphia in 2012, so too does impending financial doom threaten to tear apart Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design.

Economic distress began in 2012 when the Corcoran issued a statement reporting their intentions to “implement plans to ensure its long-term stability and attain a new level of vitality and excellence.” Without the aid of federal funding, their need for $100 million in renovation and maintenance costs had presented them with an insurmountable challenge. Responding to this, they announced the possibility of relocation:

“So, to move toward a robust and successful future for the Corcoran, we are evaluating all of our options for the building. Just as the Corcoran moved in 1897 to accommodate its growing collection, one of the clear options now is to consider relocating to a purpose-built, technologically advanced facility that is cost-effective to maintain.”[1]

As Lee Rosenbaum (CultureGrrl) reported, the main issue at hand is the imminent breaking up of the collection. The Corcoran had already been through several series of major deaccessions since 1979, which were renewed in recent years.  There were even suggestions that some items had been sold against no-sale restrictions from their benefactors, though this was ultimately proven a false accusation. The dismembering of such a collection, or the disjoining of a collection from its historic setting, is extremely unsettling for ArtWatch.

2014-03-07 Corcoran Gallery interior

Inside the Corcoran Gallery’s 1897 building.

Not only does it bring to mind collections that have suffered damages in forced travel from their long-standing home. It sets out the possibility of a precious collection being forever divorced from its original donors’ wishes and set forth on a new trajectory of blockbuster exhibitions, when the public has always had the opportunity to visit the collection and to experience it within its magnificent 100+ year-old home setting. What is to become of these works that will now be removed from the walls of their Beaux-Arts dwelling, just steps from the White House? Will their history within the Corcoran, and the historic moment of American collecting it represents, simply be dissolved?


2014-03-07 - Picasso Le Tricorne Seagram Building

Picasso’s Le Tricorne at the Seagram Building.


Meanwhile, just a few weeks ago it was also reported that Picasso’s “Le Tricorne” mural was in danger of being removed, at great risk to its fragile condition, from the landmarked Seagram Building in New York City. All this simply because the building’s current owner real-estate developer Aby Rosen, thinks this Picasso is a “rag.” Even more than with the Corcoran’s collection, one must consider the holistic visual experience that will no longer be experienced by future generations. The assault on historically housed works of art is reaching epidemic proportions. Visiting the Barnes collection at its new home on the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, there is now a clear “dis-connect” between the works and their collector’s original arrangement, and the new replica building itself, with its interrupting spaces of blank  walls and glassed-in gardens.


2014-03-07 - Barnes Foundation exterior Philadelphia

Barnes Foundation exterior 2012.

After the Corcoran’s initial press release in June of 2012, alternatives were suggested so that the collection need not relocate. The Gallery’s former head of public relations and marketing, Roberta Faul-Zeitler, recommended that either the College housed at the Corcoran (since 1890) should move to a new building, or that the collection be affiliated with another premier National Museum. Among those suggested as new affiliates for the Corcoran collection were the National Gallery of Art, National Portrait Gallery, and Smithsonian American Art Museum, all in D.C.[2] As of recent news, it turns out the works will succumb to the massive appetite of the National Gallery of Art. [3] The collection will now be brought into the centralized system of museums along the Mall as if there were not something to be treasured in the fact that the Corcoran is in fact Washington, D.C.’s oldest private art museum.

2014-03-07 - Barnes Foundation hallway

Hallway at the new Barnes Foundation building, 2012.

Meanwhile, the Corcoran College of Art + Design is to be absorbed within George Washington University. As discussions over who would “take” the College swung back-and-forth between the University of Maryland and GWU over the past few years, it would be remiss to say that this portion of the Corcoran’s closure has been without its battling giants.[4] The motivation for the Corcoran to select GWU may have been unclear at first, but in the end has turned out to be founded on just what one might expect: “money, risk and control.” The Washington Post further reports that “The Corcoran also will seek to be released from its founding purpose as a gallery — chartered by financier and philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran in 1869 and now to be redefined in 2014.”[5]  The flip-flopping negotiations over the past 3 years surely must not generate trust from the 550 students being tossed about in the middle of it all.

A student organization, “Save the Corcoran,” has sprung up around this fiasco:

 “Proposing a more open and honest dialogue about the institution’s future, the group is rooted in a sincere effort to collaborate with Corcoran leadership on a solution that will address the gallery’s needs while maintaining its historic home and identity.”

In a letter on their website, the donors, artists, faculty, students, and alumni state that:  “we as a community first stood together, united in our concern, confusion and outrage over the proposed sale of the historic Ernest Flagg building that houses our beloved Corcoran.” Their last effort in this hapless struggle was to prevent the sale of the landmark Corcoran building on 17th St. with a petition in 2012. Signers have protested against what they refer to as the “suicidal sale” of one of the Capitol’s “most valuable historic and cultural assets.”[6]


2014-03-07 - Corcoran Beaux-Arts lion

2014-03-07 – Corcoran Beaux-Arts lion

This imminent threat to the Corcoran recalls what happened to the Barnes Collection in Merion, PA when the Board encountered financial troubles. It is also difficult to ignore the permanent damage to works of art caused by relocation, even by the most capable and knowledgeable hands. The Burrell Collection in Scotland is also facing this issue once the building’s four-year renovation begins and its pieces are shuttled around the world to raise funds for its costly venture. The selling and abuse of heritage collections has, unfortunately, seemed inescapable in recent years. Lee Rosenbaum has most recently brought to light a question that should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind: now that the Corcoran will cease to build their collection, where will the proceeds (in the tens of millions) go from sales of recent deaccessions?[7] Where is the master scheme behind the haphazard dissemination and dissolution of the Corcoran? How many more venerable institutions will now face dismemberment and asset-stripping in the present spell of financial austerity?


[1] Fred Bollerer (Director and President) and Harry Hopper (Chairman, Board of Trustees), “Statement from the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design,” 6 June 2012. Corcoran Gallery of Art – Corcoran College of Art + Design. (last accessed 21 February 2014).

[2] Lee Rosenbaum, “Corcoran Uproar: Desperate Gamble to Rescue a Foundering D.C. Museum UPDATED,” 6 June 2012, CultureGrrl. (last accessed 21 February 2014).

[3] David A. Smith, “Arts: Washington D.C. lose great art museum,” 6 March 2014. Waco Tribune. (last accessed 6 March 2014).

[4] Nick Anderson, “George Washington University plans for merger with Corcoran College,” 21 February 2014. The Washington Post. (last accessed 6 March 2014).

[5] David Montgomery, “When Corcoran’s partnership didn’t work out as hoped, thoughts turned to a takeover,” 1 March 2014. Washington Post. (last accessed 6 March 2014).

[6] Petition – “Vote NO on the sale of the Corcoran building,” (last accessed 6 March 2014).

[7] Lee Rosenbaum, “Corcoran Dissolution: Whither the Art-Sale Proceeds?” 4 March 2014. CultureGrrl. (last accessed 6 March 2014).