Tennessee Judge Issues Mixed Ruling on Fate of Fisk U. Art Collection

August 22, 2010

A Tennessee judge sent Fisk University and the state's attorney general back to the drawing board on Friday to work out a new plan for the university's collection of art donated by Georgia O'Keeffe, which Fisk says it must sell to remain solvent.

The question of whether Fisk may sell the collection remains unclear. The judge, Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle of the Davidson County Chancery Court, ruled that the financially struggling university in Nashville had proved it could not care for the collection in the way O'Keeffe had intended, but that its proposed sale of the art to a museum in Arkansas did not respect O'Keeffe's wishes either.

Chancellor Lyle ordered the attorney general and Fisk to come up with new plans by October 8 that would ease Fisk's financial responsibility for caring for the collection but stay true to the stated purpose of the gift—"to provide Nashvillians and Southerners access to the collection to promote the study of art."

The ruling is the latest in a five-year court battle over a sale of part or all of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, valued at $74-million. O'Keeffe, a leading 20th-century artist, gave the collection—97 works from the estate of Mr. Stieglitz, her late husband, and four pieces that belonged to her—to Fisk in the 1940s and 1950s. O'Keeffe placed several restrictions on the gift, including that the pieces not be sold and that they be displayed together.

Fisk has argued that it must sell the art to cover financial shortfalls. Under the sale agreement it had presented to the court for approval, Fisk would sell a 50-percent ownership share in the collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Ark., for $30-million. Fisk would retain half-ownership of the collection, and it would be displayed in Nashville six months of the year.

Chancellor Lyle rejected the Crystal Bridges proposal, ruling that several provisions in it overrode or diluted the purposes for which O'Keeffe made the gift. The judge did, however, leave open the possibility that Fisk might submit a modified agreement with Crystal Bridges that would fulfill the gift's intent.

Seeking Another Home in Nashville

Chancellor Lyle asked the attorney general, who had fought the sale on the grounds it would undermine future charitable giving in the state, to propose a solution that would allow the artworks to stay in Nashville. She suggested the attorney general devise a sharing agreement with other local museums or consider replacing Fisk with another organization in Nashville better suited to carry out O'Keeffe's wishes.

In a written statement, Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. said his office was grateful that the court had agreed the Alfred Stieglitz Collection belonged in Nashville. "We hope all those in our community who care about the future of this collection and Fisk University will join us in seizing this opportunity provided by the court to look for constructive and creative alternatives," he said.

Chancellor Lyle found that Fisk, which has about 700 students, was in severe financial distress and could no longer care for the collection. Hazel R. O'Leary, the university's president, testified to those troubles, including a regular deficit of $2-million and a deficit for the fiscal year that ended on June 30. She also testified that Fisk's endowment had declined from $4.27-million to $3.7-million and was completely restricted, meaning it could not be used to plug holes in the university budget or to maintain the art collection. The university has been forced to cut salaries for faculty and staff members and to eliminate two degree programs.

"It is impracticable for a struggling university on the brink of closing to literally comply with Ms. O'Keeffe's plan that Fisk maintain and display the collection," Chancellor Lyle wrote.

In its own statement, the university pledged to "follow the courses outlined in the chancellor's order," working toward an agreement that "provides both relief to Fisk and supports the collection." But the statement also said Fisk expected the attorney general to craft a proposal that would still provide the university with $30-million, an assertion that suggests hard negotiating lies ahead.

After the new proposals are submitted, the court will either hold a hearing on them or issue a new ruling.