2015-07-20 - Penn Station demolition

To Protect and Preserve: A Discussion on the Ethics of Caring for Art & Historic Landmarks.

Ruth Osborne

Last Wednesday evening, I had the opportunity to present on past, present, and future wrongs done to art, before an engaged and impassioned audience at The Coffee House Club in midtown Manhattan.

Historic preservation and issues of transparency and careful stewardship of the arts are inherently linked with the original aims of ArtWatch International, an organization founded when a renowned art history scholar was taken to court for “aggravated slander” against a harmful conservation treatment upon a significant work of the Italian Renaissance. That scholar was Professor James Beck, and the work was the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto by Jacopo della Quercia. Beck ultimately came out the victor, but the opposition was strong and well-connected.

Beck’s final statement at the trial read:

“The possibility that the considered observations of art critics and art scholars should not be aired, or that their judgments need to be cloaked in palliative euphemisms if they are expressed at all, is a dangerous precedent for the principle of free speech and free criticism. If such rights, which are guaranteed by the world charter of the United Nations and by the constitutions of both the United States and Italy, among others, were qualified, the effect would be chilling, and certainly the true losers would be the art objects of the past and future generations who have every right to expect to enjoy and learn from the treasures of the culture, conserved and preserved, in the best manner possible.”

The ultimate goal of the Ilaria case and other such struggles ArtWatch International has subsequently undertaken is not only to argue for the care of these sites and objects in the proper way, and thus ensure the history they represent is not carelessly swept away. It is also our aim to heighten transparency and create a dialogue about the treatment (or damage) done upon works of art, something often amiss in public statements by those placed in roles of protecting and preserving our cultural heritage. When there exist such individuals as Beck and others who are willing to speak out against wrongdoing and injury, the memory and enjoyment of our cultural heritage has hope of protection.

The issues of the Barnes Collection (1990-2012), Corcoran Gallery of Art (2012-2014),  the Merchant’s House Museum (2012-2015), and the Delaware Art Museum (2014-2015) relate the disconcerting fact that there is a growing need to fight against damage to art and history. From these examples, one can also see how the law protecting art, collections stewardship, and historic preservation has attempted to help, but unfortunately in many cases has lost the battle. Awareness about the dangers posed to historic preservation and good collections care and management is a necessity. Collections are being separated from original donors’ intentions, from their historic environments, sent around the world incurring damage in transit. Historic structures are being discarded and treated as second-class citizens of a city’s landscape in the face of new development. There must be individuals who remind those in power – board trustees, directors, museum professionals, city planners – that they also have a responsibility to provide protection for our artistic and cultural heritage. By disregarding it, they are doing their work without heart. They are doing a disservice to both their industries and themselves. These paintings, sculptures, and historic sites are delicate and require careful stewardship and attention in order to be honored and preserved for discovery by present and future generations.

The hope of ArtWatch is that we can provide a platform on which concerns can be aired and best practices championed and maintained

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).