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Fisk University Wants Court-Barred Art Deal With Arkansas Museum Approved

Financially troubled Fisk University says it plans to stick with the Arkansas-based Crystal Bridges Museum in trying to win court approval of a shared ownership deal for the 101-piece Alfred Stieglitz Collection of photographs and art, despite being barred twice by a Tennessee judge from selling any part of its valuable collection. 

Crystal Bridges, backed by Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton, has offered Fisk $30 million for 50 percent ownership and six months a year exhibition rights of the collection. The offer includes internships, other considerations and provisions that could ultimately give Crystal Bridges complete ownership of the collection over time.

“Fisk’s objective remains to fashion an agreement that provides both relief to Fisk and supports the collection,” the school says in a statement issued after a Tennessee judge last Friday again barred Fisk from concluding a deal by which Crystal Bridges would acquire 50 percent ownership of the 101-piece Stieglitz Collection “The Fisk-Crystal Bridges agreement does just that by expanding accessibility to the collection to more of the South and providing fiscal relief that we seek to begin rebuilding Fisk’s endowment.”

Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle, of the Chancery Court of Tennessee, 20th Judicial District, ruled Friday the Fisk-Crystal Bridges agreement violated in numerous ways the legally binding terms of a 50-year-old agreement between Fisk and the collection’s donor, the late Georgia O’Keeffe. The O’Keeffe-Fisk agreement bars the sale of the collection and provides only narrow exceptions for it to be loaned.

“The sharing proposal, increasingly popular with galleries and museums across the globe, is an innovative arrangement that is clearly in the best interest of Fisk, Tennessee, and the South,” Fisk counters in its statement. “To achieve these ends, we will follow the courses outlined in the chancellor’s order,” the school said. 

In barring the Fisk-Crystal Bridges agreement on eight different points, including the sale and lending provisions, Lyle found Fisk was in dire straits and no longer financially able to maintain and exhibit the Stieglitz Collection. In that regard, she ordered the school and state of Tennessee to present plans for removing the collection from Fisk’s responsibility in a way that most closely aligned with O’Keeffe’s intentions. The state is to report to the court by early September. Fisk has until early October to respond. 

In making its argument that it was legally “impracticable” for Fisk to continue honoring the terms of its agreement with O’Keeffe, the school gave the court a bleak picture of its finances. It said it regularly runs an annual deficit of approximately $2 million. In addition, it said all buildings on its small campus have been mortgaged, academic programs have been eliminated, its tiny endowment has lost $500,000 in value over the past two years, faculty and administration salaries have been cut and most students at the tuition-driven school have seem their financial aid cut or discontinued. Enrollment continues to decline and is now less than 700 students, Fisk said.

Lyle used those disclosures by the school to endorse Fisk’s argument that it was no longer financially able to carry responsibilities for the collection on its own.

Fisk, which started its new academic year this week, said the court ruling would have “no immediate impact” on its daily operations.

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