Fisk University Gets Green Light to Sell Half Ownership of the Stieglitz Collection

A Tennessee appeals court late Tuesday gave embattled Fisk University permission to sell half ownership interest of the school’s treasured Alfred Stieglitz Collection of art and photographs for $30 million dollars cash with no significant restrictions on use of the funds.

It could be as much as a year before any of the money is seen, as the appeals court sent Fisk’s latest plan for the sale back to a trial court in Nashville with orders to provide more detail on how Fisk would be able to hold up its part of the promised responsibilities to maintain and care for the collection over the long term.

Otherwise, the appeals court opinion was a strongly worded rebuke of several key parts of the trial court decision approving the sale, repeatedly siding with Fisk that the trial court had exceeded its power in fashioning relief for the impoverished school in several respects, including restricting the use of the $30 million. 

The Stieglitz collection was given to Fisk more than half a century ago by the late Georgia O’Keeffe with strict conditions barring the sale or loan of any part or all of the collection. It includes paintings by O’Keeffe, including the famous Radiator Building, photos by Stieglitz, her late husband, and works by Diego Rivera, Renoir, Picasso, Dove and other Impressionists era artists. While Fisk owns the art, it has been unable to maximize the value of ownership as it does not own copyright of the art. 

Delays aside, the three-judge appeals panel approved the ownership sale plan to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas and said Fisk could ignore the trial court’s decision last year that required most — $20 million — of the proceeds to be placed in a fund from which the school could only use earned income from the fund, then, solely for the purpose of caring for the collection.

Fisk, which has been battling for the right to raise badly needed revenue through the art collection sale, protested that part of the trial court’s decision approving the sale, asserted placing the bulk of the sale money in a restricted endowment was “grossly excessive and unnecessary.” The appeals court agreed.

The appeals court also approved Fisk’s proposed “sharing agreement” allowing the collection to be housed and exhibited on a rotating basis — two years in Nashville, where it has been since the early 1950s and two years in Arkansas at the Crystal Bridges Museum, a facility backed by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton.

“Fisk is healthier today that it was yesterday,” Fisk President Hazel O’Leary was quoted as saying in a statement released by Fisk late Tuesday regarding the appeals court ruling.

This week’s court ruling was sweet victory for O’Leary, who has been widely criticized in numerous circles — from the arts community to some distinguished alumni — for championing the art sale. One group of alumni went to court earlier this year to protest the sale, asserting it set bad precedent and could hurt the long-term ability of Fisk to attract donors. O’Leary has remained unwavering in her focus on the sale idea, despite the criticism and calls for her to step down. 

State Attorney General Robert Cooper, who has aggressively opposed the sale accusing O’Leary of trying to monetize the collection, issued a brief statement saying, “We are reviewing the opinion and will be evaluating our options.”

Cooper, asserting the Stieglitz Collection is protected in the public’s interest by legal doctrines governing charitable gifts, has argued the Fisk proposal violated the intent of the donor, in this case, O’Keeffe. He had asserted that court approval of the sale of the gifted art could open the doors for schools to sell valuable gifted assets at any time simply by claiming poverty.

O’Leary, who has been in court some six years with various plans to raise money for Fisk by selling all or part of its art holdings, has said the school needs more than $100 million to restore the historic institution to the level of greatness for which it was once known. Proceeds from the partial sale of ownership in the art collection, would serve as substantive seed money, she has said.

The plan for those funds, outlined several years ago, includes restoring money borrowed from the school’s endowment, establishing several endowed teaching chairs, making needed physical repairs and upgrades on buildings across the campus and paying debtors.

Fisk, home of the historic Jubilee Singers, has been in financial straits for several decades, with funding from traditionally reliable sources steadily diminishing over the past several decades.

In court arguments last year over the proposed sale, Fisk told trial court Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle the school was essentially broke. The school told the court it had mortgaged all of its buildings, cut salaries, and deferred maintenance and capital improvements. The school told the trial court it had zero dollars in unrestricted endowment funds, its endowment had shrank to $3.7 million, and the school was running an annual deficit of $2 million. The school’s financial situation has not improved significantly since.

Meanwhile student enrollment, once as high as 1,200 students, also has been nose diving. This fall, student enrollment at Fisk was just over 500. 

Fisk is expected to hear this weekend or early next week about its status with the influential Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The widely respected peer rating agency placed the school on “warning” status last year, citing a deep concern about the school’s long-term viability.