ARTnewsletter Archive

Judge Upholds Legality of Lawsuit: O’Keeffe Museum v. Fisk University

A Tennessee chancery court ruled last month that the lawsuit of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, N.Mex., against Fisk University, Nashville, challenging the school’s efforts to sell pieces from its art collection, can proceed, thereby blocking Fisk’s motion that the case be dismissed.

NEW YORK—A Tennessee chancery court ruled last month that the lawsuit of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, N.Mex., against Fisk University, Nashville, challenging the school’s efforts to sell pieces from its art collection, can proceed, thereby blocking Fisk’s motion that the case be dismissed. The judge further refused to rule out the possibility that Fisk might have to forfeit artworks from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection to the estate of the donor, the O’Keeffe museum, should it lose the lawsuit, currently scheduled for a Feb. 19 trial (ANL, 11/13/07, pp. 2-3).

Fisk sought to have the suit dismissed on grounds that the O’Keeffe Museum does not have “standing,” or authority, with respect to the disposition of the works, and further argued that a reversion of the collection to the O’Keeffe museum had never been stipulated as a violation of the conditions of the original gift. The museum, formerly called the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, represents the artist’s estate. In 1949 O’Keeffe gave Fisk 101 works from the collection of her deceased husband, the renowned American photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), on condition they be kept together.

On Dec. 21 chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that under New York law—which governs the terms of the gift—“the museum has a legal right to enforce the donor’s conditions placed on the gift and to seek reversion of the Collection in this case.”

Citing an earlier court case, the chancellor ruled that the consequence of reversion is “implicit” where questions about breach of conditions of a university gift are concerned. “Under New York law an express statement of reversion is not required for that remedy to be applied to a donor’s successors,” the ruling stated.

The O’Keeffe museum, acting for the artist’s estate, originally brought action against Fisk in early 2006, after the school first publicized its plans to sell two two important works from the Stieglitz collection—O’Keeffe’s painting Radiator Building-Night, New York, 1927, and Marsden Hartley’s Painting No. 3, 1913.

This past September the trustees of Fisk approved a proposed agreement with Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton under which the school would give her a 50 percent interest in the Stieglitz Collection in exchange for $30 million (ANL, 9/18/07, pp. 4-5; 10/2/07, p. 4). The O’Keeffe Museum opposes this proposal, claiming that it still violates the terms of O’Keeffe’s gift.

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