NEW YORK—Nashville, Tennessee–based Fisk University moved a step closer to gaining approval for a proposed $30 million art-sharing agreement with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton and scheduled to open in Bentonville, Ark.
Earlier this month, Fisk, which has been open about its ongoing financial difficulties, filed an amended proposal in the Davidson County, Tennessee, Chancery Court intended to address the concerns of the court’s judge, Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle, about the sharing agreement as originally proposed. The amended plan includes a detailed schedule as to when the collection—which consists of 101 modernist works formerly owned by Alfred Stieglitz and donated to the school by his widow, Georgia O’Keeffe, in 1949—will be exhibited in each location. Other changes include a stipulation that any future disputes will be brought before the Davidson County Chancery Court, as well as a provision that “Crystal Bridges cannot sell its one-half ownership without the consent of the Chancery Court and then only to another public museum,” according to a statement issued by Fisk on October 9.
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 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 $30 million. 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 the amended proposal, Fisk and Crystal Bridges have agreed that the art will remain at the university until 2013 and will then be exhibited for two years at Crystal Bridges; it will then return to Fisk during the two-year period 2015 to 2017. Among the two most valuable works in the collection are O’Keeffe’s oil Radiator Building, 1927, and Marsden Hartley’s Painting No. 3, 1913. O’Keeffe donated the collection with a requirement that the works be kept together and never loaned or sold.
Tennessee attorney general Robert Cooper, who is responsible for overseeing charitable gifts in the state, has weighed in on the matter numerous times. Last month, Judge Lyle rejected a proposal put forth by Cooper under which the Tennessee Arts Commission would take temporary possession of the Stieglitz collection and display the works at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, also in Nashville (ANL, 9/21/10).
Responding to Fisk’s recent filing, a spokesperson for the attorney general released a statement: “While we will review the modifications to the Crystal Bridges agreement . . . the fact remains that selling the Stieglitz collection neither solves Fisk’s underlying financial problems nor honors the intent of the donor, Georgia O’Keeffe. There are alternatives that would ensure the Collection remains available to Fisk students and the Nashville public in a way that honors the mission and the history of Fisk. . . . Future donations in Tennessee will suffer if donors fear that their wishes will be swept aside.”
Fisk president Hazel O’Leary stated “In the 21st century, museums have adopted the practice of sharing artwork to reduce the cost of acquisition and to ensure that a broader segment of the population can view and study collections. . . . because of the sharing agreement, more people in the South can enjoy and study the Stieglitz Collection, which was the donor’s intent.”
The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) also weighed in on the issue. On Oct. 4, its president, Kaywin Feldman, director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, sent a letter to O’Leary offering “help, to avoid breaking up or selling the Collection.”
According to the letter: “Selling art to support operations is not viable as a long-term financial strategy; it is the equivalent of spending down endowment principal. . . . contravening the intent of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe is not the only option, and we believe doing so harms both Fisk’s reputation and its historic role as one of the nation’s great educational institutions.”