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Judge Sides With Fisk in Fight Over Art Collection Allows $30M Sharing Agreement to Move

The battle for control of financially troubled Fisk University’s multimillion-dollar art collection took another turn last week when a state court judge rejected a proposal to move the collection to another Nashville institution until the school’s finances improve.

NEW YORK—The battle for control of financially troubled Fisk University’s multimillion-dollar art collection took another turn last week when a state court judge rejected a proposal to move the collection to another Nashville institution until the school’s finances improve.

In recent years Fisk—along with other colleges facing financial difficulties, such as Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., and Randoph College, Lynchburg, Va.—has found itself at the center of controversy after attempting to leverage its art collection (ANL, 9/4/07).

On Sept. 10, Tennessee attorney general Robert Cooper, whose office is responsible for overseeing charitable donations in the state, filed a proposal which provided that the Tennessee Arts Commission take temporary possession of the Alfred Stieglitz Art Collection—101 works of modern art originally donated to the school in 1949 by Stieglitz’s widow Georgia O’Keeffe—and display the works at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, also in Nashville.

Cooper’s proposal quickly sparked an uproar among university students and strong reaction from Fisk president Hazel O’Leary. According to a posting on the university’s blog on Sept. 13, “consistent with Fisk University’s long stated fear, the Attorney General has today said that he intends to rip control of the Alfred Stieglitz Art Collection away from Fisk … In an outrageous theft from Nashville’s oldest university, nothing would be paid to Fisk for absolute control over the Collection.”

“This is only a temporary arrangement,” Cooper said. “The Collection should return to the Fisk campus when the University is once again financially able to display and maintain the art.”

However, in a ruling issued on Sept. 14, chancery court judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle rejected the attorney general’s proposal, writing that it was only a “short-term solution. A temporary fix, however, is insufficient, the Court concludes. The parties have been in court over the Collection long enough. Finality and certainty [are] needed.”

Said O’Leary, “Nashville has a simple choice to make and that is whether it is better to keep the art in Nashville full time and have Fisk close or keep the art in Nashville half the time and have Fisk survive.” Fisk University has until Oct. 8 to file an alternative proposal.

In rejecting the proposal, Lyle supported O’Leary’s view, ruling that “the evidentiary record before the Court establishes that the donor was deliberate about where the Collection was placed in Nashville. That deliberate placement was Fisk University. … [W]ithout Fisk, Nashville never would have been the beneficiary of the collection. … It would not be in keeping then, with the donor’s intent to keep the Collection in Nashville at the cost of sacrificing the existence of Fisk University.” Lyle added, “Having the Collection in Nashville only half of the time and reducing Fisk’s ownership to a half is not a perfect solution but it does keep Fisk afloat.”

Judge Reverses Course on Previous Deal

Lyle furthermore expressed support for an earlier proposed sharing agreement reached between the university and the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art—founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton and set to open in Bentonville, Ark.—subject to some modifications to make it “less one-sided in favor of Crystal Bridges.” Lyle ordered the parties, “in their upcoming final briefings, to address the feasibility of modifying the Crystal Bridges Agreement along the following lines [including elimination of] potential divestment of a Nashville connection to the collection which provisions were objectionable to the Court in its previous Memorandum and Order.”

Legal wrangling over Fisk’s efforts to leverage the collection, either by selling a partial interest in it or other means, and disputes about O’Keeffe’s intent as a donor have dragged on for nearly five years. The agreement between the university and Crystal Bridges was reached nearly three years ago, when the board of trustees of Fisk approved an agreement under which the university would give the museum a 50 percent interest in the collection in exchange for $30million. That settlement came after nearly two years of negotiation and litigation in which the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, N.M.—the successor to the O’Keeffe estate—had been a key player.

Under the terms of that agreement, Fisk and Crystal Bridges would share joint ownership allowing for “mutual care and management of the collection as well as the right to publicly display [it] on an equal basis.” The collection includes major modern works by O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley, among others.

In early 2006, the O’Keeffe Museum had sued Fisk over its exploration of a possible sale of some works from the collection, arguing that it violated the terms of O’Keeffe’s gift, that the works be kept together and never loaned or sold.

In early 2007, the school and the O’Keeffe Museum reached an agreement under which the two most valuable works—O’Keeffe’s oil Radiator Building, 1927, and Hartley’s Painting No. 3, 1913—would be sold to the museum for $7million. However, the Tennessee attorney general stepped in and halted the sale, calling it a bad deal for Fisk, when he learned that dealers had come forward with offers of up to $25million, an attorney for Fisk told ARTnewsletter at the time (ANL, 4/17/07).

“Having the Collection in Nashville only half the time and reducing Fisk’s ownership to a half is not a perfect solution,” wrote Lyle, “but it does keep Fisk afloat, thereby maintaining and holding true to the law’s recognition of the donor’s deliberate selection of Fisk for the art.”

Following the decision, Fisk president O’Leary released a statement, saying, “It’s been a good day for Fisk. We will file the modifications that the Chancellor has outlined in her order by the October 8 deadline. We look forward to a successful resolution.”

Crystal Bridges spokesperson Virginia Ger­mann wrote in an e-mail to ARTnewsletter, “We agree with the Court’s rejection of the Attorney General’s counter proposal. In accordance with the ruling, we look forward to re-opening our dialogue with Fisk University.”

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