Tennessee Proposes Temporary Custody Plan for Fisk Art Collection; School Protests

The State of Tennessee, the City of Nashville and a new visual arts center in downtown Nashville will combine forces to temporarily relieve Fisk University of its responsibilities to maintain, house and exhibit in Nashville a priceless art collection until the school regains financial stability, the chief lawyer for the State of Tennessee said Friday in a plan filed with a Tennessee court in Nashville.

Fisk, which has been blocked by the state court in its five-year effort to monetize the 101-piece Alfred Stieglitz Art Collection of photographs and paintings, immediately took issue with the plan.

The school issued a statement quoting President Hazel O’Leary characterizing the state’s plan as “nothing more than the display of raw power in an undisguised attempt to steal this art from its rightful owner.” O’Leary said the state plan provides no money for Fisk and removes all power over the collection from the school, except ownership. “This is a shameful day in the history of Nashville,” O’Leary said.

The collection, which includes pictures by Stieglitz and paintings by Renoir, Cezanne, Diego Rivera and Georgia O’Keeffe, was donated to Fisk in the late 1940s and early 1950s by O’Keeffe, Stieglitz’s widow. In accepting the gift, Fisk agreed to numerous restrictions designed to keep the collection at the school, including provisions barring the sale of all or part of the collection. Fisk and O’Keeffe also agreed to restrictions on allowing the collection to leave the campus. In addition to the $30 million Fisk would get for selling half its interest in the Stieglitz collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum, the Fisk deal allows the Arkansas organization the right to display the collection at the Arkansas facility six months of each year.

Fisk says it needs to amend terms of the gift in order to monetize the art collection and save the school. A judge has barred the proposed deal with Crystal Bridges because it violates numerous tenets of the O’Keeffe gift covenants, including ownership and accessibility for Nashville residents and other Southerners.  

Under the state’s plan, the Tennessee Arts Commission would take “temporary possession” of the collection. It would then contract with the Frist Center for the Visual Arts to “maintain and display” the collection in a 900-square-foot section of the facility that would be open to the public free of charge. The area would be called the “Alfred Stieglitz Collection at Fisk University” and would provide Fisk students and faculty “additional access” to the collection for research and study, the state says. State and Nashville government agencies and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts would foot the costs of the state plan. The initial costs of the plan have been estimated to exceed more than $300,000.

“This is only a temporary arrangement,” Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper said in a statement. “The collection should return to the Fisk campus when the university is once again financially able to display and maintain the art.”

The state says it would rely on a panel of four “nationally recognized experts” to help with the “maintenance and preservation” of the collection and to “address any issues with respect to the outdated nature of certain of Ms. O’Keeffe’s condition with respect to the display and maintenance of the collection.”  The committee consists of Gail Andrews, the R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art; Dr. William U. Eiland, director of the Georgia Museum of Art; Dr. Richard J. Powell, the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University; and Jock Reynolds, artist and former director of several museums and art projects across the country.

In addressing the panel of advisers, O’Leary challenged the idea of allowing “a committee made up entirely of non-Tennessee residents to make “all decisions regarding the exhibition and preservation of the collection,” saying nothing would be paid to the school in exchange “for absolute control over the collection.”

“Nashville has a simple choice to make, and that is whether it is better to keep the art in Nashville full time and have Fisk close, or keep the art in Nashville half the time and have Fisk survive,” O’Leary said. “The State of Tennessee and metropolitan Nashville have decided the art is more important than Fisk. We believe that continuing the education of our students is more important.”

In a separate letter to alumni, O’Leary repeated her assertion that the state was trying to “steal” the collection from the school. She urged them to call members of the board of Nashville’s housing development agency (they are set to vote Tuesday to formally approve their role in the state’s plan) and urge them to vote against the plan they have informally approved. She asked them to write Nashville Mayor Karl Dean “and strongly protest” the city’s involvement in the state’s plan. She also urged Nashville alumni to participate in a Monday night prayer vigil at the school. The appeal for mobilization was the most aggressive by a Fisk president since the 1980s when the school made a public appeal for funds to keep its doors open. 

Fisk has until October 8 to respond in court to the state’s plan and present plans of its own, including a revised Crystal Bridges deal, under a court order issued last month by Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle of the Chancery Court of Tennessee.

Lyle last month ruled Fisk had proved it was in dire financial straits, making it financially “impracticable” to honor O’Keeffe’s gift conditions. She ordered Fisk and the state to come up with plans to relieve Fisk of its responsibilities in a fashion that most closely reflects O’Keeffe’s wishes as required by law.