"Today we take a dramatic step toward realizing a dynamic partnership that will safeguard the Corcoran legacy for generations to come," said George Washington University President Steven Knapp.
A group of students and faculty fought the merger, arguing the Corcoran could be saved with better leadership, philanthropic support or a better partnership model. Witnesses in court described an organization in limbo with a broken fundraising operation and struggling board.
In a city full of government-funded museums, the Corcoran was one of the few independent art galleries and was celebrated for its adventurous programs.
Camila Rondon, the Corcoran's student government president, said the decision was devastating but that she and others who fought the merger now want to make sure students' voices are heard and their artwork is still exhibited in the gallery as the college merges.
"We did our best," she said. "I think we should be happy with how strong we were and how persistent we were and how far we got."
The opponents do not plan to appeal.
Okun had to decide whether to allow a break in the Corcoran's 1869 deed of trust that established the museum to allow for the merger. It was a legal question of whether it was "impossible or impracticable" to continue the original deed.
"This court finds it painful to issue an order that effectively dissolves the Corcoran as an independent entity," Okun wrote. "But this court would find it even more painful to deny the relief requested and allow the Corcoran to face its likely demise — the likely dissolution of the college, the closing of the gallery, and the dispersal of the gallery's entire collection."
Okun wrote that two internationally recognized institutions with strong commitments to art and education had agreed to sustain the college and art collection under the Corcoran name.
Under the merger, most of the 17,000 artworks would be given to the National Gallery of Art, which would run exhibit programs in a smaller gallery space. Most of the building would be devoted to the art school as part of George Washington University. The Corcoran will give the university at least $35 million from recently sold art to pay for initial renovations, and the university will pay for future renovations.
Corcoran attorney Charles Patrizia argued the trustees had no choice but to seek support from larger institutions, citing $28 million in cumulative deficits since 2008 and 40 years of struggles. The Corcoran college's accreditation was endangered because of its financial problems, Patrizia said in court.
Opponents of the merger objected to the giveaway of Corcoran art and real estate, as well as the separation of the museum and college. They pointed to a recent turnaround of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which also had considered merger and takeover options.
The opponents presented alternatives, including a proposal from a Washington philanthropist to lead a campaign with new donors who have said they would help make the Corcoran a world-class center for creativity.
While the judge found some criticism of the Corcoran's past management valid, he was not convinced the alternative proposals, "amorphous and aspirational as they are," would be as consistent with the Corcoran's founding purpose.
The judge noted the Corcoran founder's historic connection to George Washington University.
"Undoubtedly, Mr. Corcoran would not be pleased by this turn of events," Okun wrote. "It seems likely, however, that he would be pleased to see that the college will be preserved through its partnership with the very university to which he donated both property and his company's archives ... and that the gallery will be preserved through its partnership with one of the country's pre-eminent art institutions."