NEW YORK—Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn., is once again facing another legal challenge in its long-running efforts to sell a half share of its multimillion dollar art collection in order to raise cash that university officials say is desperately needed for operating and other expenses.
On Jan. 30, Tennessee attorney general Robert Cooper filed for permission to appeal a ruling handed down in appellate court late last year. The decision under dispute gave Fisk the liberty to sell a 50 percent ownership interest in its Alfred Stieglitz Collection to the recently opened Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., which was founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton.
The Stieglitz collection was donated to the school in 1949, by Georgia O’Keeffe in honor of her late husband Alfred Stieglitz, under the condition that the works be exhibited together and never loaned or sold. The collection of 101 works features top examples of American modernism, including work by O’Keeffe herself, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, John Marin and Arthur Dove. Also in the collection are works by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Diego Rivera, as well as photographs by Stieglitz.
In approving the proposal, Cooper says the lower courts “fashioned a remedy that disregards the donor’s charitable intent and express instruction that the gift of an invaluable art collection not be sold.”
In 2007, the Crystal Bridges Museum agreed to pay the university $30 million for a 50 percent stake in all 101 artworks in the collection. The museum would purchase a half-share of the collection, keeping it for two years and returning it for two years in order that Fisk students would be able to enjoy these artworks during at least two of their four years at the university.
In his plea to the Supreme Court, Cooper acknowledged that accommodations are permitted under the law for changes in a bequest—known in legal parlance as cy pres—but that these changes “must be as close as possible to what the donor intended.” The arrangement between the university and the museum, however, “is far removed from Ms. O’Keeffe’s intent and purpose.” The attorney general noted the state’s interest is “not just to preserve the status of this priceless art collection in Tennessee but also to ensure the continued flow of comparable gifts in the future.”
The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) also weighed in on the matter last December, issuing a public statement about the Fisk and Crystal Bridges arrangement: “As AAMD has stated consistently, such an action would violate a core professional standard of AAMD and of the museum field, which prohibits the use of funds from the sale of works of art for purposes other than building an institution’s collection. Using funds from the sale of works of art for general expenses undermines the institution’s public trust, service to its community and the relationship between museums and their supporters.”