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Tennessee Argues Fisk Art Sale Could Chill Future Donors

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – An attorney for the state of Tennessee argued in court Friday that allowing Fisk University to sell a donated art collection could deter people from giving gifts in the Volunteer State.

“We don’t want other donors being chilled from making similar donations in the state of Tennessee,” said Will Helou, a private attorney representing the state.

His statements came during closing arguments in a Nashville trial that will determine the fate of the prized Steiglitz art collection. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe donated the collection to the historically Black school in 1949.

Fisk wants to sell 50 percent of the collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark., for $30 million. The cash-strapped school has asked a court for authority to make the deal with the museum founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton.

Lawyers for the school have argued that Fisk is in such dire financial straits that it can no longer maintain and exhibit O’Keeffe’s gift. Fisk President Hazel O’Leary testified this week that the school may be forced to shut down without the sale.

A Chancery Court judge has to decide whether it is either impractical or impossible for Fisk to comply with the conditions of the gift and, if that’s the case, decide what is closest to what O’Keeffe intended.

During closing arguments, one of Fisk’s lawyers said Fisk could no longer exhibit and care for the collection.

“It’s impractical, your honor, and it’s going to become impossible unless something is done to right this ship,” attorney John Branham argued.

The Nashville school has had a long history of financial problems, but the Princeton Review rated it among the top 15 percent of America’s universities.

Fisk has maintained that the deal with Crystal Bridges would be a win-win situation. But lawyers for the state of Tennessee have argued that O’Keeffe would not have wanted the collection moved from Fisk and away from Nashville.

They said the artist donated the collection to a historically Black school during the time of segregation and argued that it would be her wish that Nashvillians and African-Americans in particular have access to it. They also noted that O’Keeffe never took the collection away from the school despite being well aware of its financial problems.

Throughout the trial, Fisk lawyers said they have tried for years to get community leaders to help them save the collection so it would not have to be moved. O’Leary said the school is being monitored by an accrediting agency because of its financial condition.

The collection belonged to the estate of O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Steiglitz. It has been valued at $74 million.

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle said she would have a decision on Aug. 20.

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