Fisk Seeks Court’s Permission to Sell Prized Paintings
Sale would improve institution’s financial standing, but move the school away from its legacy of advancing the arts.
By Reginald Stuart
Lawyers for Fisk University and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum early this month were working to hammer out an agreement that would avoid a potentially bitter court hearing in Nashville over whether Fisk has the authority to sell two priceless works of modern art as part of a financial recovery plan.
Fisk, the historically Black college that nurtured some of the great Black scholars and thinkers of the past century, including W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope Franklin and Nikki Giovanni, hopes to raise $10 million to $20 million in cash by selling the two crown jewels of its 3,000-plus piece collection of art and artifacts — Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Radiator Building – Night, New York,” and Marsden Hartley’s “Painting No. 3.” Both paintings are part of the 101-piece “Stieglitz Collection,” given to the school in 1948 by artist Georgia O’Keeffe. The gift included the restriction that the paintings were to be kept by the school and never sold.
Fisk has had its hands full since December 2005, when it asked a Chancery Court judge in Nashville to declare that the school has absolute ownership and authority over the Stieglitz Collection, a ruling that would give Fisk legal standing to dispose of the paintings.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and its successor, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, based in New Mexico, where O’Keeffe lived until her death, challenged the school’s move. They have argued that O’Keeffe made it very clear in a 1949 letter that she wanted the collection to stay at Fisk permanently. It was part of a social enlightenment compact agreed upon in the late 1940’s with Fisk’s then-president, Charles S. Johnson.
The proposed sale has also drawn criticism from others in the arts education community and some Fisk alumni and supporters. They see it as a shortsighted, bandage approach to solving the university’s chronic financial woes. Those problems date back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the school began losing support from wealthy White philanthropists unhappy with the “Black Power” sentiments sweeping the campus. Reynaldo Glover, a Chicago corporate lawyer and Fisk chairman, counters the school’s critics, asserting the sale is a “no brainer,” given the choices facing the small, liberal arts university.
Since Fisk asked the court for the ruling, both sides have spent thousands of dollars gathering evidence to support their claims. A number of past Fisk officials have been deposed regarding their understanding of the tortuous history of the collection at Fisk, one marked both by failed attempts to sell it and attempts to promote it.
Amid a whirlwind of speculation, earlier this month and last, that a settlement may be at hand, school officials and lawyers for both sides refused several requests to discuss their strategies or objectives in seeking to settle their differences outside the courtroom. Ken West, vice president for communications and public relations at Fisk, said, “a settlement would be ideal, but we haven’t gotten anywhere.”
Hazel O’Leary, Fisk’s president since 2004 and champion of the art sale as the cornerstone of her recovery plan, said in an interview last year the sale of the two art pieces in the absence of any other financial windfall made sense as part of a plan to save the school.
The school has used nearly half of its approximately $20 million endowment for operating expenses over several years prior to her arrival, says O’Leary, a former Secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration and a Fisk alumnus.
“We’re not a museum,” says O’Leary, the school’s sixth president in a decade. She says she would love to have the art on campus but she doesn’t feel preserving the art collection trumps educating the students. Given the financial state of the school, Fisk cannot afford to do both, as several past presidents have tried, she says.
If successful in her move, O’Leary would be abandoning a nearly
50-year attempt by successive leaders of Fisk to preserve, restore and promote the collection as part of the school’s long heritage in advancing the performing and visual arts. In the 1800s, Fisk became known worldwide as a gospel music pioneer with its Jubilee Singers, soon to embark upon another tour that includes stops in Africa. During the Harlem Renaissance, Fisk also became a nurturing ground for social thinkers like Du Bois and artists like the late Jacob Lawrence. As the school’s fortunes have fallen, its focus on visual arts has diminished also, symbolized by growing sentiments over the past 15 years to cash in on the Stieglitz Collection.
According to court papers, Fisk would use $570,000 of the sale proceeds to “stabilize, restore and protect the remainder of the Stieglitz Collection.” The institution plans to use the remaining money to restore the endowment, endow faculty chairs in biology, business administration and mathematics and provide a “partial match” for grant funds to build a new science building.
None of the funds from the art sale would go to Fisk’s art department or art programs, based on the court filing.
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