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Last June, the Corcoran Gallery of Art sold a small collection of rugs at Sotheby’s. One of them, a famed 17th century Persian rug known as the Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet, after its distinctive patterning, outdid all predictions: The piece sold for $33.8 million, well over the $5 to $7 million estimate. In all, the lot of 25 Middle Eastern and Asian rugs from the William A. Clark collection sold for $43.8 million, netting the Corcoran $38.4 million after buyer’s premiums.
Ever since the Corcoran began considering dramatic solutions for its ongoing financial problems, the museum has maintained steadfastly that it is holding to its policy on deaccessioning works. In a June 2012 assembly at the Corcoran—held days after Washington City Paper first reported that the Corcoran was considering the sale of its 1897 Beaux-Arts building at 17th Street and New York Avenue NW—then-senior curator Paul Roth reassured members of the Corcoran community that the museum had not considered and would not consider deaccessioning works to make up its deficits.
There’s no reason to suggest that the Corcoran has ever considered selling its art in order to fund its budget. But with the news that the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design will be absorbed by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, the ethical status of this particular sale—this particularly large sale—has been thrown into limbo. The Corcoran’s position on deaccessioning is not unusual. For art museums, it’s akin to the Prime Directive: Museums cannot and must not sell works to cover their operating costs. The practice of shaping a museum collection is held to the strictest standards by the Association of Art Museum Directors. “[D]eaccessioning—the art world term for selling pieces from a museum’s collection—has become a dirty word and the focus of increasingly intense attention,” wrote Robin Pogrebin in a 2011 report on the dangers of deaccessioning for The New York Times. Museums that sell works for any reason invite scrutiny, and for good reason.
According to what little detail is known about the takeover of the Corcoran, the National Gallery of Art will assume control over the Corcoran’s art collection, whereas George Washington will absorb the Corcoran college, its Flagg Building and Georgetown campus, and its debts and assets. So who gets the approximately $40 million purse—a frozen fund, one that must be used for the further acquisition of works for a Corcoran Gallery of Art that soon will not exist?
None of the parties involved could say who will wind up with the $40 million. “It is our understanding that the Corcoran’s art-related endowments will transfer to the Gallery, but we are still very early in the process,” writes National Gallery press chief Deborah Ziska. George Washington University declined to comment, and Corcoran Vice President for Marketing and Communications Mimi Carter has not responded to requests for comment.
Any outcome raises red flags. Simply handing over $40 million to George Washington University as another asset in the giveaway of the Corcoran’s building and college seems to violate museum ethics in the most direct way.
Then there’s the question about the propriety of the sale in the first place. Why was the Corcoran deaccessioning works in June 2013 when the institution’s leaders knew two months earlier that it was weighing a partnership with the University of Maryland that would change the color and the shape of the institution?
Some questions fall in a more philosophical vein. If the Corcoran’s nearly $40 million fund can only be spent toward the acquisition of new artworks, does it satisfice for the National Gallery to acquire new works for the as-yet-to-be-established Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art? (“Can’t address hypothetical questions at this point,” said Ziska, when I pitched this puzzler her way.)
Yet there’s another question here—one that won’t win me any friends in the Association of Art Museum Directors—that must be asked. Given that these funds from deaccessioning cannot be used for new Corcoran acquisitions if the Corcoran doesn’t exist, shouldn’t the Corcoran violate the Prime Directive and use the money to save itself?
“Between the money from the Clark sale and the money realized by deaccessioning the Oriental rugs, doesn’t the Corcoran have enough cash to jump-start a capital campaign and save itself?” The Corcoran asks. “No,” the Corcoran answers. “The financial issues confronting the Corcoran are substantial and were the basis for launching this effort to find a sustainable future for the college, the collection, and the building.”
This answer isn’t good enough. Given a nearly $40 million purse under a violation of museum ethics that would be inevitable no matter what—given the resolution of the $20.5 million monetization of the lease with Carr—given the $10 million settlement of the Clark estate and the proceeds of the sale of Monet’s Water Lilies and other works—plus the immediate offer of financial and fundraising support from the University of Maryland!—it is hard to swallow the Corcoran’s characterization that it is a museum backed into a corner. Different leaders might see these circumstances as the light at the end of the tunnel, not as the justification for pulling the plug.
A simpler question stands for now. What happens to the $40 million?