NEW YORK—In 1949, when Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) donated the Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern European and American Art to Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., the artist included a provision that the collection—comprised of about 100 works—be exhibited intact, and that no items could be loaned or sold at any time.
Now the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, Santa Fe, N.Mex., is relying on that provision to challenge the university’s proposed sale of two works: O’Keeffe’s Radiator Building, 1927, and Marsden Hartley’s Painting No. 3, 1913, which art dealers have estimated could bring in a combined $16/20 million.
In December the University applied to the County Chancery Court for permission to be released from O’Keeffe’s conditions, citing “changed circumstances.”
Fisk says it needs the funds in order to replenish the university’s endowment—specifically to fund faculty chairs in business, science and mathematics, provide money for the construction of a new science building and to pay for enhanced security and conservation for the remaining 99 works in the Stieglitz collection.
In January, documents filed in Chancery Court by the O’Keeffe Foundation restated the artist’s intention of maintaining the collection as a whole. According to a statement released Feb. 3 by Fisk University president Hazel R. O’Leary, “the sale of two pieces of the Stieglitz collection will relieve Fisk of its near-term cash crunch and permit us to implement a long-term, income-
generating business plan that leads to a greater degree of academic excellence.”
Fisk currently has an art collection of 3,826 objects, primarily of African-American and African objects, according to spokesman Ken West. These include paintings by Romare Bearden and Harlem Renaissance muralist Aaron Douglas. The university’s willingness to sell the Hartley and O’Keeffe paintings is not based on the view that “these two works don’t fit into the African-American experience,” West maintains, but because their deaccessioning is “the least disruptive way to achieve our strategic goals.”
O’Keeffe had never visited Fisk; nor did she know anyone there before her friend Carl Vechten, a photographer and art historian who knew Fisk’s then-president Charles S. Johnson, convinced her to donate the collection of her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), to Fisk. He reasoned that the small university would be unable on its own to afford art of this quantity and importance, and that it would be valuable for the students’ education.
The suggestion fell on receptive ears, in part because both O’Keeffe and Stieglitz were supporters of the nascent civil rights movement. O’Keeffe herself visited Fisk in 1949, helping to hang the collection in what was a converted gymnasium, and in 1981 gave the university $20,000 to pay for the cleaning and restoration of works in the collection. At the time she complained of the institution’s seeming indifference to the Stieglitz works. But shortly before she died in 1986, O’Keeffe donated another $50,000 to Fisk.
No date for a Chancery Court hearing has been set; however, it is unlikely to take place before the end of the year. Lawyers for the university also plan to challenge the legal standing of the foundation, which is in the process of turning all its assets over to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, to represent the intentions of the artist. No one from the O’Keeffe foundation, nor the lawyer representing it in Nashville, William L. Harbison, would comment for this article. The Tennessee attorney general’s office, seeking to have a say in the outcome of the case, has also filed papers with the court.