Fisk Says It Must Sell O'Keeffe Art Collection to Survive

In October, a judge will decide whether saving one means sacrificing the other.

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Selected work from the Stieglitz Collection. (Nashville Public Television on YouTube)

Fisk University is on the brink. The endowment of the tiny, historic school in Nashville, which opened its doors to newly freed slaves in 1865, is depleted. Every building on the campus where poet Nikki Giovanni, historian John Hope Franklin, and educator and activist W.E.B. Du Bois were educated has been mortgaged.

Fisk President Hazel R. O'Leary says that the only asset of real value left is the Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art. It is a $74 million trove of early modernist masterpieces that artist Georgia O'Keeffe donated to the school six decades ago. The art's presence at Fisk is a source of joy, consternation and dispute.

Fisk, which had slightly more than 800 undergraduate students in 2009, has tried to sell off parts of the expensive-to-maintain collection for years. The sale has been blocked by legal challenges, first by the O'Keeffe estate, then by the state of Tennessee. Those opposed to a sale argue that Georgia O'Keeffe saw the collection as a gift to Fisk and the people of the South, not as a cash machine from which to make withdrawals.

Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper wants the art to stay in Nashville, even if it means its removal from Fisk and exhibition elsewhere. The city's Frist Center for Visual Arts has offered its galleries to house the collection.

That would leave Fisk not only with no art-sale revenue but also with no Stieglitz art collection.

In August, the case landed in a Nashville court again. Fisk petitioned for release from the strict conditions of O'Keeffe's bequest and for permission to sell a half-share in the collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for $30 million. The agreement would rotate the collection between the campus and the not-yet-constructed museum being bankrolled by Walmart heiress Alice Walton in Bentonville, Ark.

Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle ordered both sides back to square one. Fisk had made its case, she said, that maintenance and display of the collection as O'Keeffe instructed was not feasible for a financially struggling university. But Lyle wasn't ready to allow a sale.

The three days of testimony before Lyle turned a harsh spotlight on the relationship between Fisk and the community it calls home. It even pitted Fisk against the art itself.

Fisk attorney John Branham argued that the collection was created by "Caucasians," with no real connection to Fisk's true mission. The collection, amassed by O'Keeffe's late husband, the legendary photographer Alfred Stieglitz, includes works by Picasso, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Diego Rivera and O'Keeffe herself.

It is visited by fewer than seven people a day.

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