Tennessee Judge Reverses Course, Embraces Fisk Plan To Sell Interest in Art Collection

Fisk University’s plan to sell half interest in its most valuable asset—a 101-piece collection of art and photographs—for $30 million to Arkansas’s Crystal Bridges Museum won conditional approval Tuesday from a Tennessee judge who has blocked the sale twice in recent years, most recently last month.

Fisk, financially broke and threatening to close its doors without the cash windfall, immediately hailed the sudden turn of encouraging legal news and said it would meet the court’s conditions as outlined in the judge’s order.

Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle of the Chancery Court of Tennessee, Twentieth Judicial District, in Nashville, had ordered the state and Fisk, in an August 20 ruling, to present plans for relieving Fisk of its responsibility for the collection. Lyle’s ruling was based on her agreement with Fisk’s statements in court that the school’s precarious financial condition made it “impracticable” for the school to continue to maintain and exhibit the art collection.

The collection had been given to Fisk, with strict no-sale, no-loan provisions, in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the late artist Georgia O’Keeffe, widow of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, both of New York. In the August order, Lyle gave the state until September 10 to file a plan for relieving the school of the collection and Fisk until October 8 to respond to the state plan.

In Monday’s late ruling, coming on the heels of several Nashville protest events called by Fisk President Hazel O’Leary against the state’s plan, Lyle said she had reviewed the state’s plan, a plan the state thought had been drawn to address her detailed requirements set forth in her August 20 ruling and found it unacceptable.

While praising the state’s top legal counsel for his efforts, Lyle faulted the state’s plan as a “temporary fix” that was “insufficient” to permanently resolve the issue of how to best relieve Fisk of its legal responsibility to care for, maintain, and exhibit the collection under the terms of an agreement with the collection’s donor. “The parties have been in court over the collection long enough,” she declared. “Finality and certainty is needed.”

“The best the attorney general has been able to do is to propose a short-term solution,” Lyle wrote in a seven-page opinion and order accompanied by a 21-page memo outlining the changes she wanted in the Crystal Bridges plan. “The option the court must turn to at this point is to modify the Crystal Bridges Museum Agreement, Fisk has proposed, to make the Agreement more closely approximate the donor’s intent,” the judge wrote.

Lyle said she would look with favor upon the Fisk-Crystal Bridges plan if several major modifications were made in it, including elimination of language that could cause Fisk to lose the entire collection over time if certain ownership provisions were not met.

Lyle also insisted the deal include specific language that maintained the collection’s Nashville connection, so that it be as consistent as possible with O’Keeffe’s intent of “enabling Nashville to have access” to the collection.

To stress that point, Lyle required that a specific timetable be presented for when the collection would be in Nashville. In her addendum, offering edits to the Fisk-Crystal Bridges plan, Lyle wrote precise language of what she could accept in exchange for granting Fisk relief under the so-called cy pres legal standards governing relief from a donor’s gift rules.

Fisk President O’Leary, who blasted the state’s plan last Friday, called Tuesday’s ruling “a good day for Fisk.” In a statement issued late Tuesday afternoon, O’Leary was quoted as saying, “We will file the modifications that the chancellor has outlined in her order by the October 8 deadline. We look forward to a successful resolution.”

 

The office of Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper said it was reviewing Tuesday’s finding and order by Judge Lyle, who has generally sided with the state in blocking several Fisk sale plans over the past five years. The state, most recently, has argued that granting the school relief from legally binding gift restrictions would chill giving by other donors who might fear recipients would seek to monetize their gifts in time of need. The Fisk collection is valued at $74 million.

The collection includes pictures by Stieglitz and paintings by Renoir, Cezanne, Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe, and other modern art period artists and is the most valuable asset owned by Fisk.

Lyle said in her August order that she expected her final order of relief for Fisk to be appealed, meaning it could be next year or longer before the matter reaches finality.