After a decision by the Tennessee Court of Appeals handed down on Tuesday, Nashville’s Fisk University is one step closer to being able to sell the gorgeous art collection bequeathed to it by artist Georgia O’Keefe. A little background is in order to understand this controversy. In 1949, O’Keefe donated 97 pieces to Fisk from the estate of her late husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. The collection contains works by Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne, Marsden Hartley, Alfred Maurer and Charles Demuth, among others. O’Keeffe, who died in 1986, also gave the school four of her own paintings as part of the gift, which was made to Fisk because the school educated blacks at a time when the South was segregated. The gift carried the stipulation that it could not be sold or broken up. But Fisk has long maintained that it cannot even afford the yearly costs of displaying the collection and that it needs to monetize the artwork to keep its doors open. In 2005, Fisk announced plans to sell O’Keeffe’s “Radiator Building” and Hartley’s “Painting No. 3.” The state attorney general opposed the sale because that office oversees charitable giving for the State. The parties have been litigating about the collection ever since.
Fisk wants to enter into a joint venture with the Crystal Bridges Museum of Benton, Arkansas, wherein Fisk would sell a 50% stake in the collection in exchange for $30 million dollars. The Fisk O’Keefe collection would then move between Fisk and the Crystal Bridges Museum every two years. Crystal Bridges also houses a collection amassed by Walmart heiress Alice Walton and features pieces like Asher Durand’s landscape painting “Kindred Spirits” and Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter.”
The trial court had placed a condition on the transaction that Fisk had to reserve two thirds of the proceeds, or $20 million dollars, to ensure future upkeep of the collection amid the university’s shaky financial circumstances. The Court of Appeals held that the trial judge did not have the authority to impose this reserve and that the proposed sale could go forward without the reserve requirement. Judge Frank Clement dissented, arguing that the record indicated that it was never Georgia O’Keefe’s intention to give Fisk the collection in order “to pay its general operating expenses.”
While the Court of Appeals ruled out the reserve requirement, it did not preclude the court from approving one or another “dedicated source of support” for the collection. It also requires Fisk to outline how it will use a $1 million pledge from Walton to upgrade the display space and describe plans to spend the $30 million proceeds from the transaction.
The state attorney general’s office has not yet indicated whether to seek an appeal to the state Supreme Court and it has thirty days to make that decision.
Judge Richard Dinkins, delivered the opinion of the court, in which Judge David Farmer joined. Judge Frank Clement filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.
John P. Branham, Stacey A. Garrett, C. David Briley, and C. Michael Norton, Nashville, Tennessee, for the Appellant, Fisk University.
Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter, Joseph F. Whalen, Associate Solicitor General, Janet M. Kleinfelter, Deputy Attorney General, and William N. Helou, Nashville,Tennessee, for the Appellee, State of Tennessee.