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Judge hears final arguments on breaking up DC's Corcoran Gallery of Art through merger plan

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WASHINGTON - After years of financial and management trouble, the fate of one of the oldest museums in the U.S. and one of the few independent art galleries in Washington is now in the hands of a judge.

Attorneys made closing arguments Wednesday in a court case to determine the future of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its college after presenting evidence for six days.

Trustees of the gallery are seeking to merge the museum and college into George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art, effectively dissolving one of the nation's oldest museums 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 new academic year begins later 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 alternative.

Two high-power law firms have argued the case without charge. The Paul Hastings firm represented the Corcoran trustees, and Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher represented the opposition.

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.

"Now there will be stronger support, stronger exhibits," he said. "The college will continue with a stronger base educationally, financially and structurally."

If the merger is not approved, Patrizia said, the museum and college would likely lose their accreditations because finances are dwindling, and students would become ineligible for federal aid. There is no time to pursue alternatives, he said.

Under the Corcoran 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 Corcoran's 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 proposed giveaway of Corcoran art and real estate, as well as the separation of the museum and its college. They pointed to a major turnaround of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which also considered merger and takeover plans.

Attorney Andrew Tulumello argued the Corcoran is not insolvent but had $91 million in assets and $17.9 million in liabilities on its last audited financial statements. Rather than having the Corcoran give George Washington University more than $35 million, Tulumello said "it is madness not to spend it on yourself."

"For generations, the institution endowed by Mr. Corcoran thrived," he said. "This board seeks its dissolution."

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 centre for creativity. That would not require breaking the Corcoran's deed, Tulumello said.

Under a separate proposed partnership, the University of Maryland would invest $46 million into the Corcoran. The Corcoran would remain independent but become a university-affiliated museum and professional art school.

A financial analyst testified the Corcoran's cash assets could also be restructured to begin building an endowment to cover future losses. But museum officials said most assets are bound by restrictions that limit how they may be spent.

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Follow Brett Zongker at https://twitter.com/DCArtBeat .

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