On August 18, 2014, the DC Superior Court granted the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s (the Trustees’) petition for cy près relief with regard to certain agreements with George Washington University (GW) and the National Gallery of Art (NGA). In DC, the cy près doctrine has been codified at DC Code § 19-1304.13. It authorizes a court to apply cy près to modify a trust if the party seeking relief establishes, in relevant part, that: (1) a charitable purpose of the trust is or has become impracticable or impossible to achieve; and (2) the proposed modification of the trust is as near as possible to the settlor’s original charitable purpose. The DC Attorney General supported the Trustees’ petition but it was opposed by a group of current students, faculty, and staff.
The Corcoran, consisting of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (the Gallery) and the Corcoran College of Art + Design (the College), was established in 1869 under a Deed of Trust. It has long struggled with financial problems. In recent years, its deficits and the condition of its buildings threatened the accreditation of the Gallery and the College. Under the Trustees’ proposal, GW will acquire the College and operate it under the Corcoran name. GW will renovate the Corcoran’s iconic building near the White House, known as the Flagg Building, and maintain the College there in perpetuity. The NGA will take possession of most of the Corcoran’s collection of art, absorb some into its own collection, and work with the Trustees to distribute to other art museums and appropriate institutions other works, giving preference to those located in DC, subject to approval of the Attorney General. NGA also will establish a new contemporary art program, incorporating the Corcoran’s name, for the purpose of exhibiting works from the Corcoran’s collection. GW will maintain display space at the Flagg Building for a collection of works that are historically associated with the Corcoran and will work with NGA to dedicate portions of display space for the new contemporary art program.
In a 48-page memorandum opinion, the Court held that the Trustees had met the requirements for cy près relief. Based on testimony regarding the Corcoran’s current financial condition, the cost of renovating the Flagg Building, potential sanctions if the Corcoran paid for renovations by selling part of its collection, and the possible loss of the College’s accreditation, the Court held it was impracticable to carry out the existing Deed of Trust. The Court found that Mr. Corcoran’s intent was to create a gallery of fine art, along with a college of art and design, located in DC, and to encourage the production and preservation of art through both the gallery and the college. The Court “found it painful” that the proposal effectively dissolves the Corcoran as an independent institution, and authorizes the de-accession of some of the collection, but determined that the “proposal is consistent with Mr. Corcoran’s intent and effectuates that intent as nearly as possible in light of the Corcoran’s current financial condition.”
A copy of the Court’s Memorandum Opinion is available here.