Fisk Says It Must Sell O'Keeffe Art Collection to Survive
In October, a judge will decide whether saving one means sacrificing the other.
Despite its problems, Fisk ranks 110th out 267 schools on the U.S. News & World Report 2011 list of national liberal arts colleges as ranked by high school counselors. It is one of three historically black colleges, lined up like jewels on a necklace, along the Jefferson Street corridor that was once the heart of Nashville's black business district. The others are Meharry Medical College and Tennessee State University.
In testimony, O'Leary described meeting with local art patrons. Instead of offering support, they questioned Fisk's survival, as well as the validity of historically black colleges in a post-Brown v. Board of Education world.
The state's attorneys asked whether Fisk's financial straits were as dire as O'Leary had claimed. In 2008 she testified that Fisk's finances were so dire, it would lose its accreditation unless the sale went through. It was reaccredited the following year.
The state also pressed for details about how $30 million could save the school, since O'Leary had testified that Fisk needed closer to $150 million to get back on its feet.
There have been attempts to encourage local art lovers to step up and keep the Stieglitz Collection in Nashville. The efforts, however, went nowhere. A local attorney charged with trying to sell the collection testified that no one in the community "had a real emotional attachment to the art."
Whether the community at large has any emotional attachment to Fisk University remains an open question as well. Fisk is now arguing that the collection's six-figure annual upkeep further drains the school's finances, and the court battles are poisoning how the community views the university.
Fisk, O'Leary testified, is hemorrhaging. "As you bleed Fisk to death, you bleed the ability to [care for] the Stieglitz collection," she said. Asked whether Fisk can survive without the $30 million art sale, she replied, "No, it cannot."
Jennifer Brooks is a Nashville-area writer.