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Fisk Can Keep Art Collection, Judge Rules—with Caveats

On March 6, Tennessee Chancery Court Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle determined that Fisk University, Nashville, should retain possession of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, despite having “breached the conditions” under which the works were originally gifted to the school more than 50 years ago.

NEW YORK—On March 6, Tennessee Chancery Court Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle determined that Fisk University, Nashville, should retain possession of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, despite having “breached the conditions” under which the works were originally gifted to the school more than 50 years ago.

The historically black school, which in recent years had been open about its financial struggles, was sued by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, (formerly the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation), Santa Fe, N.Mex., after Fisk made several attempts to leverage the art collection: first, by arranging to sell two important works; and, later, by drawing up an art-sharing agreement with Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, whose Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is scheduled to open in Bentonville, Ark., in 2010.

Painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) had donated the art—101 works from the collection of her deceased husband, American photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)—to Fisk in 1949 on condition that they be kept together. Included were major pieces by Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) and O’Keeffe herself (ANL, 11/13/07, pp. 2-3).

The office of the Tennessee attorney general, which oversees charitable gifts within the state, opposed Fisk’s attempts to sell parts of the collection, and Chancellor Lyle ultimately rejected both the sharing and selling proposals as well.

Fisk sought to dismiss the O’Keeffe museum’s claim that the collection should be returned, but Lyle ruled that the action could proceed.

Rx for ‘Relief’

The ruling in favor of Fisk unequivocally states, “The Court decides that Fisk has breached the conditions but that the circumstances do not yet justify removing the Collection from Fisk.”

Nonetheless, the decision contains some clear-cut caveats: “The Court imposes a permanent, mandatory injunction that prevents Fisk from selling the Collection [and] sets a deadline for Fisk to remove the Collection from storage and return it to display.”

However, if the university fails to comply with the newly established regulations, a further finding of contempt is “punishable by fines, payment of damages and attorney fees and forfeiture of the Collection.”

The decision notes that “the law does not favor forfeiture. That remedy is reserved for the most severe conduct.” The chancellor further says that the collection serves a broader “public interest” in terms of study and viewing opportunities for students, residents and visitors.

On a positive note, evidence at trial established that Fisk’s financial decline had been “temporarily reversed” by a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and another $600,000 in donations.

Fisk did not respond to requests for comment on the ruling. Tennessee attorney general Robert Cooper commented, “We are pleased that Chancellor [Lyle] has ruled that Fisk University can keep the Stieglitz Collection and has recognized the public’s interest in this unique cultural resource. We are confident that Fisk can meet the requirements that the Court has set.”

O’Keeffe museum president Saul Cohen told ARTnewsletter, “We are delighted with the Court’s ruling. The Chancellor’s opinion helps reinforce the principle that when a gift is made to a museum with conditions that are accepted by the recipient, those conditions cannot be ignored just because the recipient decides it would rather have money.”

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