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Fisk Proposes Revisions in Plan To Sell Interest in Stieglitz Art Collection

Fisk University and the Arkansas-based Crystal Bridges Museum have dotted the “i’s” and crossed the “t’s” on a major revision of their plan that gives Fisk $30 million cash in exchange for selling Crystal Bridges 50 percent ownership of Fisk’s prestigious Alfred Stieglitz Collection of art and photographs and giving the museum considerable control over the future of the collection.

In a legal brief filed Friday in Nashville in the Chancery Court for the State of Tennessee, 20th Judicial District, Fisk told Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle that the school and museum had eliminated from an earlier deal numerous passages of language Lyle had found objectionable and would bar their proposal from being considered as part of her deliberations on whether to excuse Fisk from “no sale, no loan” restrictions on the collection.

The “no sale, no loan” restrictions were part of an agreement Fisk made with artist Georgia O’Keeffe in the late 1940s and early 1950s when she gave the collection to the school. The collection includes photographs by Stieglitz and paintings by O’Keeffe, Renoir, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Cezanne and Diego Rivera. The works were part of the estate of Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s late husband.

Fisk has been asking the courts for five years to approve various proposals to monetize the collection, arguing most recently that its pauper status makes it “impracticable” under established cy pres legal standards for the school to continue maintaining the collection. By selling an interest in the collection, Fisk asserts it will be able to raise badly needed funds to keep the shrinking school open. Selling the collection and allowing it to leave the campus for extended periods of time are barred by the agreement with O’Keeffe.

Lyle, who has found the school financially unable to continue maintaining the collection, is being asked by Fisk to waive the restrictions and allow the sale to go forward, a proposal strongly opposed by the state’s attorney general and some Fisk alumni. They say the gift sale would hurt overall giving to Fisk and other institutions by donors who fear their gift rules would someday be cast aside.

In Friday’s filing, Fisk says most of the court’s proposals set forth in a 14 September memorandum and order “have been adopted wholesale,” including elimination of a number of provisions regarding secured loans, transfer of interest and Delaware Limited Liability Corporation language. Lyle found that those provisions could result in Fisk eventually losing full ownership of the collection valued at $74 million.

The new Fisk-Crystal Bridges plan throws many management details to a potentially powerful “Collection Committee” and significantly veers from the original exhibition schedule proposed by the two. In response to Lyle’s call for a more specific six-month rotation schedule, Fisk and Crystal Bridges proposed a two-year rotation plan with schedule decisions in later years left to their “Collection Committee.” Its members were not identified.

Under the new proposal the 101-piece collection would remain on exhibit at Fisk through the summer of 2013, rotate to the Crystal Bridges Museum for the fall of 2013 through the summer of 2015, then return to Fisk for two years through the summer of 2017. At that point, the collection would go on a permanent two-year rotation between the two institutions “unless the Collection Committee decides otherwise for good reason.” The proposed rotation arrangement would allow the collection to be accessible at Fisk for at least two years of a student’s four years of study at Fisk, the school told the court.

Among the “other language” changes Fisk and Crystal Bridges agreed upon and proposed to the court was language requiring any agreement changes to be brought to the Chancery Court in Nashville for approval or rejection. Lyle had objected to earlier language providing dispute resolution through binding arbitration. They also revised proposed language regarding an out clause for Crystal Bridges. The new language says Crystal Bridges cannot sell its one-half ownership without the consent of the Chancery Court and then only to another public museum. The document is silent on what governs any sale by Crystal Bridges of any portion of its ownership below the one-half level.

Fisk wasted no time using its court brief to launch another round of attacks on the efforts of State Attorney General Bob Cooper, who says O’Keeffe did not give the collection to the school for it to be sold later. Cooper’s Fisk art collection plan, which he says is focused on protecting the legal safeguards of a donor’s intent, was initially rejected by the court last month as too tentative. It would preserve Fisk’s 100 percent ownership of the Stieglitz Collection and temporarily house the collection at a Nashville visual arts museum at no cost to Fisk until Fisk gets its financial affairs in order. The school would have to do traditional fundraising to support itself rather than monetize and lose control of the collection through a sale for a one-time capital gain.

Inferring that Cooper’s no-cash plan could hasten the school’s demise for lack of finances while the Crystal Bridges plan would infuse a new lease on life, Fisk blasted Cooper’s plan, envisioning a disastrous outcome for the ailing school. It says Cooper’s plan would “give” the collection to Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts, deny Fisk the needed cash infusion at hand, and force the school to spend its final days unable to display the collection on its campus. The new Fisk-Crystal Bridges deal would avert that possibility, the school contended.

“Under this agreement, any danger of this cultural treasure being taken away from Fisk and its students through private deals or backroom bargaining involving politically connected or wealthy individuals is gone,” the Fisk brief to the court says. “Fisk believes that the court now has before it the opportunity for effective cy pres relief that will effectuate the donor’s intent given the changed circumstances in the last half century.”

Cooper, who opposes any sale of the collection, responded to Friday’s filing by Fisk, saying, “… the fact remains that selling the Stieglitz Collection neither solves Fisk’s underlying financial problems nor honors the intent of the donor, Georgia O’Keeffe. … Future donations in Tennessee will suffer if donors fear that their wishes will be swept aside,” Cooper declared, echoing the sentiments of higher education fundraising experts around the nation and some Fisk alumni opposed to the sale.

In a statement released by the school in conjunction with the filing, Fisk President Hazel O’Leary is quoted as saying, “We believe that Crystal Bridges will be an excellent museum and steward of the Stieglitz Collection.”

“In the 21st century, museums have adopted the practice of sharing artwork to reduce the costs of acquisition and to ensure that a broader segment of the population can view and study collections,” O’Leary is quoted as saying. “The students of Fisk, to whom Georgia O’Keeffe made the gift of art, citizens of Nashville and of the state of Tennessee are in no way adversely impacted by this sharing agreement.”

The state has until 22 October to respond to the revised Fisk plan and make any new proposals of its own, after which Lyle says she will issue a final order resolving the case. Lyle has said she expects that her ruling will be appealed.

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