ARTnewsletter Archive

Dispute Continues Over Fate of Fisk University Art Collection

As the legal battle over Fisk University’s efforts to leverage its art collection continues, Tennessee state attorney general Robert E. Cooper Jr., whose office is responsible for overseeing charitable gifts within the state, says it should be given sole authority to ensure that requirements regarding the collection are complied with.

NEW YORK—As the legal battle over Fisk University’s efforts to leverage its art collection continues, Tennessee state attorney general Robert E. Cooper Jr., whose office is responsible for overseeing charitable gifts within the state, says it should be given sole authority to ensure that requirements regarding the collection are complied with.

This claim was made in a 47-page brief filed with a state appeals court on Sept. 8. The attorney general’s brief argues that a Tennessee state chancery court erred when it ruled last March that the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, N.M., has a right of reversion and could possibly regain possession of the art.

The dispute centers on 101 works that were given to Fisk in 1949 by painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) from the collection of her late husband, American photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), on the 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).

Fisk, which has struggled financially in recent years, has been locked in a legal battle for more than two years with the O’Keeffe Museum, which controls the O’Keeffe estate, over the university’s efforts to sell off part of the collection. The Museum argues that Fisk breached the conditions under which O’Keeffe gave the works to the school, and therefore should forfeit title to the collection.

The attorney general argues, on the other hand, that “the O’Keeffe Museum, the successor in interest to Miss O’Keeffe’s estate, has no right of reversion or reacquisition in the Stieglitz Collection, even if the conditions that Miss O’Keeffe placed on the collection have been violated by Fisk.” He also argues that “the O’Keeffe Museum lacks standing under New York law”—where the artist’s will was probated—“to seek to enforce those conditions. The only party with the authority to seek to enforce those conditions is the Attorney General, who represents the interests of all beneficiaries of this charitable gift.”

In its March ruling, the chancery court rejected a proposed art-sharing agreement between Fisk and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, under which Fisk would give Crystal Bridges a 50 percent undivided interest in the Stieglitz Collection in exchange for $30 million. Crystal Bridges, which was founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, is scheduled to open in Bentonville, Ark., in 2010. Fisk has appealed the decision.

The attorney general further questioned whether the court “erred in ruling that the Crystal Bridges proposal did not effectuate Georgia O’Keeffe’s intent as nearly as possible,” while at the same time expressing some reservations about the proposed sharing agreement: “Fisk’s aggressive claim seeking permission to sell a half interest in the collection is . . . problematic.” If the court determines that Fisk is entitled to cy pres relief—the legal doctrine that allows a court to reinterpret the terms of a charitable gift according to the spirit of the gift, if carrying out the terms to the letter would be impracticable, illegal or impossible—“such relief would not necessarily include and, would likely fall short of, a sale of the Col¬lection.” In light of his assertion that the chancery court erred on several issues, the attorney general recommended that the case be remanded to a lower court for further analysis.

The O’Keeffe Museum also filed an appeals court brief, which was unavailable at press time. A spokesman for the museum did not respond to a request for comment.

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