NEW YORK—The six-year-long effort by Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., to raise $30 million for the institution by selling a 50 percent stake in 101 American Modernist paintings from its Alfred Stieglitz art collection, to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., is subject to yet another legal challenge before the end of the month.
Lucius T. Outlaw Jr., a 1967 Fisk alumnus and leader of a group of Fisk alumni opposed to the collection leaving Nashville under any conditions, told ARTnewsletter: “I would be very, very, very surprised if the attorney general [Robert Cooper] does not appeal the ruling that is allowing this arrangement to take place.” Outlaw is currently a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University.
Outlaw’s group of alumni has called upon the university’s president, Hazel O’Leary, to resign, because of this “single strategy and, in our view, misguided strategy of fundraising.”
Tennessee Attorney General Cooper, who has been opposed to the university’s efforts to monetize some or all of the collection, which had been donated in 1949 to the institution as a gift by Stieglitz’s wife, painter Georgia O’Keeffe, has until Jan. 28 to appeal a ruling by the state court of appeals. That ruling permitted a revised version of an arrangement—by which the Crystal Bridges Museum would purchase a half-share of the collection, keeping it for two years and returning it for two years—that was issued last June. Any appeal by Cooper would be made to the state Supreme Court.
A spokeswoman for the Tennessee Attorney General’s office said Cooper “hasn’t made a decision whether to appeal.” Crystal Bridges Museum issued a statement from its director, Don Bacigalupi, welcoming the appeals court ruling and asserting that the arrangement with Fisk University “allows diverse audiences in Tennessee and Arkansas and the nation to engage with remarkable works of art and ensures that the collection will remain intact for generations to come.”
Selling a share of the entire O’Keeffe gift to the Crystal Bridges Museum was not part of O’Leary’s plan in 2006, when she first announced that the school sought to sell two of the gift’s artworks, a 1927 oil painting titled Radiator Building, by O’Keeffe, as well as a 1913 work by Marsden Hartley, Painting No. 3, which art dealers had estimated could bring in a combined $16 million/20 million.
As a provision of the gift, O’Keeffe had stipulated that all of the pieces be kept together, and were not to be loaned or sold. After O’Leary announced the university’s intention to sell the two paintings, the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, now the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.Mex., brought a lawsuit to stop the action.
The university then worked out a plan to sell the O’Keeffe painting to the O’Keeffe Museum for $7 million, but the Tennessee Attorney General stepped in, claiming that the sale was a good deal for the museum, but “a bad deal financially for Fisk” and called the arrangement “a one-sided settlement.”
In 2007, the Crystal Bridges Museum (founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton and opened to the public in Bentonville, Ark. in November) agreed to pay the university $30 million for a 50 percent stake in all 101 artworks in the collection. That was also challenged by Attorney General Cooper, but approved by the Court of Appeals.
One of the attorneys for Fisk, Stacey Garrett, said she does not know whether that ruling will be appealed to the state Supreme Court. However, she says, “it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will take it anyway. As it stands now, we have a favorable ruling from the Court of Appeals, and we’d like the deal that has been reached to take place as soon as possible.”