NEW YORK—Tennessee state chancery court judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle has tossed out a proposed $30 million art-sharing agreement between financially strapped Fisk University and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark., which is funded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton and expected to open next year.
In a ruling issued Feb. 8, chancellor Hobbs Lyle said the proposed sharing agreement would violate the terms of a 1949 gift that artist Georgia O’Keeffe made to the historically black university: 101 works of modern art from the collection of her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz, given on condition that they be kept together.
The chancellor further allowed that the remaining issue in a suit slated for a Feb. 19 trial—an allegation that the school breached the conditions of O’Keeffe’s gift and should forfeit the entire collection—can proceed. The claim was brought by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (formerly the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation), Santa Fe, N.Mex., which oversees the artist’s estate.
“The Crystal Bridges proposal is contested by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum,” the ruling states. “This Court has ruled that the Museum is the successor to the deceased O’Keeffe, and therefore has the legal right to contest disposition of the collection.” The chancellor supported the museum’s contention that the Crystal Bridges proposal failed to merit a “modification of the no-sale rule and other restrictions placed on Fisk’s ownership of the Collection.”
Under the terms of the now-defunct proposal, Crystal Bridges would have received a 50 percent ownership share in the collection in exchange for $30 million. Fisk had already developed specific allocations for the potential funds, including $10.4 million toward its restricted endowment to replace “funds previously borrowed,” and “$4.6 million to address the University’s cash deficit.” The chancery court ruling states that “Fisk must find another alternative to its financial crisis.” A spokeswoman for Crystal Bridges declined to comment on the matter.
The decision further contains some of the most detailed evidence to date concerning O’Keeffe’s intentions in making the gift to Fisk. Court papers cite a 1951 letter, written by O’Keeffe to then university president Charles Johnson, in which she expressed concern about the school’s ability to care for the collection: “ You know I made considerable effort to get the part of the Stieglitz Collection I sent to you on the walls.
. . . You do not seem to have anyone to take care of it or utilize it and you have written me nothing about air conditioning or controlling dust and humidity. . . . Would you like to consider letting me withdraw the collection?”
O’Keeffe concluded, “If you find the Collection too much of a problem and wish to consider giving it up, let me know so that I can plan what to do with it next.” The letter prompted a response from Johnson reaffirming the school’s commitment to the collection and expressing gratitude for the gift.
In her ruling the chancellor affirmed, “The record establishes that Ms. O’Keeffe’s intent was specific. She did not intend for Fisk to be able to dispose of the Collection, in whole or in part.”
Asked to comment on the matter, Fisk University spokesman Ken West responded, “We are currently preparing for trial on the reversion issue and will be preparing an appeal.” O’Keeffe Museum president Saul Cohen declined comment.