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Claims of retaliation for faculty dissent at Corcoran Gallery of Art

An adjunct instructor at Corcoran who opposed its breakup has been terminated
The controversial takeover of the Corcoran is under review in Superior Court
Jayme McLellan, former adjunct instructor: 'This is clearly retaliation'

It seems that the controversial breakup of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design just got vindictive.

On Thursday, Peggy Loar, the Corcoran’s interim director and president, terminated an instructor who opposes the controversial takeover of the Washington, D.C., museum and school, which is currently under review in Superior Court. Petty retaliation and the squelching of dissent are the troubling perceptions created by the move.

Jayme McLellan, an adjunct instructor at the Corcoran who taught a class in professional practices for artists between 2009 and 2012, was set to do so again starting Sept. 8. The chair of the school’s fine art department had hired her and enthusiastic emails from the school confirmed the position.

The class listing was posted, student enrollment had filled to capacity and faculty orientation materials were sent to McLellan. Last Monday an email arrived to double-check whether her contract had been received.

In the message, also sent to more than a dozen other adjunct instructors for the fall semester, department chair Lynn Sures wrote, “I am checking to be certain that yours will not fall through any cracks.” Three days later, the crack became a chasm.

McLellan says she was notified that the class was canceled and her employment terminated. It appears she is the only adjunct faculty on whom the ax fell.

The problem: McLellan is the co-founder of Save the Corcoran. A nonprofit organization composed of students, faculty, staff and donors, STC initiated the court complaint in opposition to the proposed breakup of the venerable and long-struggling institution. The hearings concluded the day before her termination.

The breakup scheme calls for the National Gallery of Art to assume control of the museum’s distinguished collection and for George Washington University to absorb the art school and the Corcoran’s much-admired Beaux Arts building, situated across the street from the White House. The plan is not without controversy, since it would dissolve one of the nation's oldest museums, founded in 1869, and redistribute an estimated $2 billion in assets.

District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Robert Okun is expected to issue his ruling on the proposal by Aug. 20. He is considering the question of cy près, a legal doctrine requiring that reorganization of the Corcoran match as closely as possible the original intent of founding donor William W. Corcoran. Save the Corcoran is among those who believe the plan doesn’t come close.

“This is clearly retaliation,” McLellan said of her dismissal in a telephone interview. “Without a doubt.”

In a blistering open letter to Loar, the Corcoran director, posted on Facebook, photographer Mark L. Power, who retired from the school’s faculty in 1998 after nearly three decades, lambasted McLellan’s termination.

“In my 27 years as a faculty member,” Power wrote, “I don’t ever remember a director overriding a faculty chair’s decision. Even the US Government would not dare to treat a whistle-blower in such a callous manner.”

Replying to requests for comment on the situation, a spokesman for Loar said, “We don’t respond to requests regarding individual personnel decisions.”

A sad irony in the retaliatory dispute: Save the Corcoran is correct. The reorganization plan does not come close to the original donor’s intent for his gift. Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott is among those who have convincingly laid out why the court should not grant cy près.

McLellan said she has taught the course, which she devised five years ago, at other area schools. But given her full-time job as director of Civilian Art Projects, a local gallery specializing in emerging artists, she has time to teach only one course per semester. With the Corcoran class set, her autumn was booked. She didn’t pursue other adjunct teaching positions.

Now, it’s too late.

Twitter: @KnightLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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