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Anyone who thought that the Corcoran’s dissolution was a foregone conclusion would think again after yesterday’s court proceedings. It was the first day of the D.C. Superior Court evidentiary hearing for the institution’s cy-près petition, which would allow trustees to amend the Corcoran’s charter and toss the museum and the college to the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, respectively, and it was contentious as anything.

Though no one’s being prosecuted for anything, it had many of the trappings of a traditional trial: expert witnesses, cross-examinations, official documents entered as evidence, tense exchanges between counsels. But where most trials have a prosecution and a defense, this hearing is triangular—the trustees, the D.C. attorney general’s office, and opponents of the dissolution (representatives from the Corcoran’s student body, faculty, and staff) will all get an equal chance to introduce evidence and give testimony.

The latter group, backed by the advocacy group Save the Corcoran, is known in court as “the interveners,” as its members stepped into the middle of what might have been a quick, clean break, considering that Attorney General Irv Nathan has already filed a brief in support of the trustees.

To kick off yesterday’s hearing, Judge Robert Okun asked each side to identify their proposed witnesses. The AG’s office, unsurprisingly, had none. The Corcoran’s trustees, represented by Charles Patrizia, named three:

  • Corcoran Chief Operating Officer Lauren Stack
  • Sean O’Connor, senior vice president of Development Guild/DDI, a consulting firm that’s assisted the Corcoran with strategic planning for two years
  • Steven Knapp, president of George Washington University

Represented by Andrew Tulumello, the interveners initially planned to call 12 witnesses to testify, including:

  • Harry F. Hopper III, chairman of the Corcoran’s board of trustees, whom Tulumello intends to question on his “mismanagement” of the Corcoran
  • Caroline Lacey, a Corcoran College of Art + Design student
  • Anne Smith, a former senior fundraiser at the Corcoran
  • Wayne Reynolds, a local philanthropist and former Ford’s Theatre chair who made a bid to join the Corcoran’s board of directors last year
  • Paul Johnson, a veteran museum administrator and proposed expert witness
  • A former longtime Corcoran operations employee, Stephen Brown
  • Kathy Raffa, CPA, a proposed expert witness who’ll evaluate the Corcoran’s financial vitality against comparable institutions like Ford’s Theatre and the Phillips Collection
  • Chiara Trabacchi, an economist and proposed expert witness on the financial practicality of continuing to manage the Corcoran trust
  • Wallace Loh, president of the University of Maryland, which was considering a partnership with the Corcoran as late as February of this year
  • Save the Corcoran Director Jayme McLellan
  • Michael Botwinick, former director of the Corcoran

Patrizia took issue with the interveners’ three expert witnesses on the grounds that Tulumello didn’t provide him with a full expert disclosure report. Tulumello claimed that, absent a formal request from the court or the trustees, he wasn’t required to prepare a full report, and by giving the trustees a list of the expert witnesses and a general description of their areas of expertise, he’d already exceeded necessary disclosures. Okun, the judge, appeared sympathetic to Tulumello and the rest of his crew, given that they were only granted permission to intervene last week. Okun will make a judgment on the witnesses this morning.

After all witnesses were asked to leave the courtroom before the first testimony, Tulumello requested permission for McLellan to remain in the room, given her interest in the case and responsibility as the point person for Save the Corcoran. Okun didn’t grant an exception, so the interveners removed McLellan from their witness list; her testimony was already slated to be the shortest of the bunch at 15 minutes, and they thought it was far more important for her to be present for the entire hearing.

The remainder of the hearing was spent on Stack’s testimony, which continues today. Some highlights:

  • She broke down the Corcoran’s financials: a $28 to $30 million annual operating budget, funded by revenue from tuition ($13 million); special events, museum admission, and gift shop sales ($1.5 million); and fundraising ($3.8 million). That leaves an average deficit of $10 million each year, she said, which has been covered by one-time stopgaps like the sale of the Corcoran’s parking lot.
  • If the Corcoran didn’t dissolve at this point, Stack said, there would be a tuition drop-off as students who’d lost faith in the institution would jump ship or apply elsewhere. So, in essence, now that they’ve started dismantling the Corcoran, the Corcoran must be dismantled? Cynical, maybe, but probably not untrue.
  • Stack raised concerns about the school’s shaky accreditation with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and the possibility of incurring sanctions from the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums—sanctions like being excluded from traveling exhibitions. See Kriston Capps’ takedown of that line of reasoning here.
  • The Corcoran’s chief albatross, Stack seemed to believe, is its 17th Street NW headquarters. It’s an aging mess of fire hazards with inadequate climate control for art preservation and not enough room for the art and works it houses, and it would cost more than $110 million to bring it up to modern museum standards, according to a 2011 estimate.
  • Things got testy when Tulumello took the mic and started right in on Stack’s qualifications (or lack thereof) for her job. Before joining the Corcoran in 2011, Stack had no work experience with any museum, arts organization, or educational institution. She’d most recently been employed as the COO of a maritime-security consulting firm, followed by two years of unemployment.
  • So why’d she get the job? Tulumello not-so-subtly implied that her next-door neighbor, Harry Hopper (the chair of the Corcoran’s board), might have had something to do with it. Stack fought him on almost every point, first denying, then admitting that they were both members of a number of Alexandria community groups and taking several minutes to affirm that they’d had a a private conversation at his house while she was being vetted for the job. It’s highly improbable that her nomination for an administrative gig at her neighbor’s pet organization was a mere coincidence, but it raises an interesting catch-22: If Hopper did play a role in hiring his acquaintance for a job that she wasn’t qualified to take on, that’s grounds for accusations of mismanagement. If he didn’t play a role, and the chair of the Corcoran’s board wasn’t involved in such an important hiring decision, that’d be a misstep, too.
  • Stack revealed that she makes an annual salary of $200,000 (which isn’t outrageous for a chief administrator at an institution of the Corcoran’s size), and the crowd straight-up gasped.

Due to the protracted length of Stack’s testimony (more than two hours yesterday, and still not done) and the number of witnesses left (around 13), Okun expects the hearing to last past its original closing date of this Thursday and continue into next week. Expect more drama and snappy cross-examinations to come.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery