Tennessee Appeals Proposed Sale of Fisk University’s O’Keeffe Art

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by Sheila Burke, The Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee’s attorney general is appealing a decision that will allow Fisk University to sell a portion of an art collection donated to the school by the late painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

The appeal, filed Monday by Attorney General Bob Cooper, argues that a Nashville judge exceeded her authority last year when she allowed the cash-strapped school to sell a portion of the Stieglitz Collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas.

Cooper wants the appellate court to order the historically Black university to use a charitable fund started by a Fisk graduate that would pay the costs of maintaining and displaying the 101-piece modern art collection on the school’s Nashville campus.

The state has fought to keep the collection in Nashville, arguing that, if Fisk is allowed to sell the gift, it will deter future charitable donations in Tennessee.

Fisk officials have argued that the university is in danger of closing without money from the sale of the collection.

Last year, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle said the school could sell 50 percent of the 101-piece modern collection that O’Keeffe donated to the school in 1949. Under the deal, Fisk and the Crystal Bridges Museum would share the collection, which includes works by Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne, Marsden Hartley, and Diego Rivera, as well as O’Keeffe and her husband, photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz. But Lyle said that the school would only be entitled to $10 million and that the remaining $20 million would be placed in an endowment for the display and maintenance of the collection.

Both sides were unhappy with the ruling, and Fisk already has appealed.

In its brief, the state argued that the money is not enough to save Fisk, and it’s a breach of O’Keeffe’s original intention behind the gift.

“Ultimately, the result of this decision would be to see Fisk along the road to closing and O’Keeffe’s intent that Fisk display the Collection be thwarted,” the attorney general’s brief said. Cooper also said in the brief that he is concerned that Fisk’s creditors may press a claim to the collection in the event the university files for bankruptcy.

A spokesman for the school told the Associated Press in an e-mail that university officials expected the state to appeal and Fisk’s lawyers were in the process of reviewing the recent legal filing.

The school has had trouble paying for the display and maintenance of the artwork since O’Keeffe donated it.

The state wants the school to use a fund established by Fisk alumna Carol Creswell-Betsch that would pay the display and maintenance costs.

The fund, established with the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, is named in honor of Creswell-Betsch’s mother. Pearl Creswell was Fisk’s first and longest-severing curator of the Stieglitz Collection.

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