NEW YORK—As legal wrangling continues between Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn., and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, N.Mex., over the fate of a major collection of American art, a Tennessee chancery court judge has set a trial date of Feb. 19, 2008.
Though attorneys for Fisk argued that the case should be heard before year’s end, owing to the school’s dire financial condition, Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle agreed with the O’Keeffe museum that setting a trial date so soon would not allow the attorneys adequate time to prepare.
Financially stressed Fisk seeks legal permission to pursue a sharing arrangement with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark., that could bring the university $30 million. But the O’Keeffe museum, which represents the artist’s estate, counters that the deal would breach the terms of O’Keeffe’s 1949 gift to Fisk: 101 works from the collection of her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz—including major pieces by O’Keeffe herself, Marsden Hartley and others—which were given on the condition they be kept together.
On Oct. 22, Lyle ruled that Fisk could “formally file and bring before the Court . . . the offer of Crystal Bridges Museum to share ownership and responsibility of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection.” According to the order, “unlike its prior pleadings, Fisk has included new, detailed allegations of how the Crystal Bridges’ offer is responsive to the Conditions placed on the Collection.” However, the ruling also acknowledged the O’Keeffe museum’s continued right to “oppose and test” the offer.
Under the terms of the proposed agreement with Crystal Bridges—which was founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton and is now scheduled to open in 2010—the museum would pay Fisk $30 million for a 50 percent interest in the Stieglitz collection. Walton proposed the deal in late August; on Sept. 25, Fisk’s trustees gave their approval and sought the same from the chancery court.
The O’Keeffe museum responded on Oct. 15, stating, “Fisk now desires—in continued defiance of the ‘no sale’ provision—to refine its ‘aggressive plan to treat the individual artworks of the collection as commodities to generate revenue’ . . . by simply identifying the source of that revenue as Crystal Bridges.”
The dispute between the O’Keeffe museum and Fisk began in late 2005, after the school announced it would seek legal permission to sell O’Keeffe’s Radiator Building—Night, New York, 1927, and Hartley’s Painting No. 3, 1913, which have a combined market-value estimate of $15/20 million. The O’Keeffe museum, alleging that the university had breached the conditions of the gift, sued Fisk in early 2006.
For several months in 2006, Fisk and the museum held discussions that resulted in an agreement calling for Fisk to turn over the O’Keeffe painting to the museum in return for $7.5 million. The museum would then allow the university to sell the Hartley work and retain the profit.
That proposal, however, was rejected in chancery court in September by Lyle, who ruled that it was not in the best interest of the people of Tennessee. Lyle underscored what she saw as the preferable points of the later Crystal Bridges agreement: “[T]here is the obvious reason that Crystal Bridges offers more money; [a] $30 million payment is four times the $7.5 million offered by the Museum. . . . The Proposal gives the people of Tennessee more access to, and Fisk the ability to display, the important work Radiator Building.”
Commenting on the court’s ruling that Fisk can bring the Crystal Bridges deal before it, Fisk spokesman Ken West told ARTnewsletter, “We are very glad that the chancellor ruled in our favor. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is willing to stop at nothing to get Radiator Building, even if it means shutting down a 140-year-old institution. [The museum’s] ‘solution’ was to break up the collection and strong-arm Fisk into a fire sale price. Under the terms of our arrangement with the Crystal Bridges Museum, our core educational mission will be able to continue uninterrupted, and the collection will stay intact and be exposed to a broader audience. We look forward to a speedy resolution.”
Crystal Bridges executive director Robert Workman told ARTnewsletter, “It would be inappropriate to comment since the matter is in the hands of the chancery court.” O’Keeffe museum president Saul Cohen also declined to comment.