A promising collaboration between UM, Corcoran

The proposed partnership announced earlier this month between the University of Maryland College Park and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington is one of the more unusual ideas floated in recent years, not least because it would involve Maryland's flagship university investing in a privately owned institution located outside the state. Yet from what is known of the plan so far the potential benefits for both UM and the Corcoran could far outweigh the risks involved in such an arrangement, and for that reason it's worth exploring further.

The opportunity for collaboration grew out of the severe financial straits and management difficulties the Corcoran finds currently itself in. The venerable institution, established in 1869, was Washington's first private art museum, and it also houses a small but well-regard art school in its beautiful neo-classical building near the White House.

But in recent years the museum has struggled to attract an audience and raise funds to compete with the city's public art museums. For the last two years it has run a $7 million operating deficit, and its historic building needs another $138 million in repairs and renovation. Meanwhile the Corcoran Academy of Art and Design, which has proven to be more financially viable than the museum and which could generate additional revenue by increasing its enrollment, has been unable to expand due to a lack of space.

Even so, District art lovers were outraged by the Corcoran board's suggestion last year that the museum might sell off part of its $1 billion collection of artworks and use the proceeds to finance a move to more manageable quarters in the Washington suburbs. It was in the aftermath of the local hysteria generated by that proposal that the University of Maryland College Park stepped in as the white knight promising to save the Corcoran as a Washington institution.

Which naturally led to the question: What could the University of Maryland possibly find attractive about getting into bed with a financially strapped museum with an aging building and millions of dollars in liabilities that isn't even located in Maryland? The answer turns out to be: Potentially, a lot.

For one thing, says College Park President Wallace D. Loh, while UM is very strong in the areas considered essential drivers of economic development in the state, such as science, engineering and business, he believes the university must be strong in the arts and design as well — if for no other reason than that so many of today's students will be going into fields where they'll need both technical and artistic skills. Mr. Loh envisions interdisciplinary teams marrying engineering, computer science, design and the arts to help increase the commercial potential of the research already being done at College Park.

Moreover, the opportunities for sharing resources and faculty between the Corcoran's art school and the university — in addition to unfettered access to the museum's 17,000 artworks — would significantly expand the breadth and depth of the university's art department in a way it could never hope to do if it had to rely solely on public funding from the state.

Finally, Mr. Loh says, a partnership with the Corcoran would further raise UM's standing as a premier comprehensive state university and give College Park a footprint in the nation's capital that allows it to become a more influential voice nationally on issues of higher education funding and governance.

University officials emphasize that many details of the plan are still being worked out, and they have been careful to characterize the arrangement as a partnership rather than as a takeover or merger. Both institutions will retain their independence, and officials promise to spell out exactly how that will happen when an agreement is finalized in late summer.

But from what we know so far, even if UM has to devote some staff and fundraising resources to get the Corcoran back on its feet, the return on investment could be substantial. Skeptics are right to fear the possibility of the museum becoming a money pit, and any agreement that emerges from the current talks must be drawn up in a way that clearly delineates both parties' responsibilities and protects the state's interests. Mr. Loh has pledged that no state money will be used for capital projects at the Corcoran. Sticking to that commitment will be essential if UM and the Corcoran hope to get anything like the level of public support they will need in order to make their marriage a success.

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