Fisk University’s White Elephant

A Tennessee judge has determined that, no matter what its financial situation, Fisk University cannot sell its art collection to pay bills. According to an article in ArtInfo:

A Nashville judge rejected Fisk University’s proposal to sell a half-share of its collection to the Arkansas Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for $30 million, further endangering the future of the financially imperiled liberal arts school. Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle demanded that Fisk offer a new plan by October 8, one that both meets the standards of care and exhibition stipulated by Georgia O’Keeffe in 1949 when the late artist donated the 101 works — standards which Fisk can no longer afford to enact. Lyle also ordered that the new plan be made to represent what she called a more “Nashville-based solution.”

The $74 million Alfred Stieglitz Collection was given to the university by painter Georgia O’Keefe in the 1950s. The university was trying to sell the art collection to a museum in Arkansas supported and controlled by Alice Walton, an heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune and one of the richest people in the world.

The school was not allowed to sell the collection because the terms of O’Keefe’s will made it clear the collection was to be displayed at Fisk, a predominantly black institution, and available for the enjoyment of people of Nashville.

Fisk argued that its dire financial situation required it to sell the collection. The school has a $2 million deficit. O’Keefe’s original agreement, however, stipulates that if the university is unable to properly house the art it reverts to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

While the judge, Ellen Hobbs Lyle of the Davidson County Chancery Court, conceded that “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,” Lyle indicated that sale of the collection to a museum in Bentonville, Arkansas would clearly violate O’Keefe’s wishes.

Maybe try renting it.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer