Tennessee’s attorney general is objecting to a proposed settlement of a lawsuit involving the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and Fisk University, contending it violates the law.
Under the terms of a settlement, the museum would acquire a 1927 oil painting by O’Keeffe, Radiator Building — Night, New York, for $7.5 million. The painting is part of a 101-piece collection of 20th century art that O’Keeffe donated to the historically Black university from the estate of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz.
Davidson County, Tenn., Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled earlier this year that no paintings from the collection could be sold, saying the works were donated on the condition they be used for education.
Attorney General Robert Cooper said the settlement contradicts that ruling and could have a “chilling effect” on other donors who might fear the conditions of their donations would be ignored.
But Saul Cohen, chairman of the museum’s board, said Cooper does not grasp the distinction between a sale and the settlement of a lawsuit.
“If this were a sale, it would violate the court’s order and would involve a lot more money,” he said. “The settlement is an effort on the part of both parties to turn a lose-lose situation into a win-win situation.”
The university had been offered more than $20 million for the painting.
The case began when Fisk sought approval to sell two paintings from the Stieglitz Collection to raise money. The museum intervened, arguing that the terms of the O’Keeffe donation included a condition that the entire collection be displayed together and not sold.
The latest agreement provides for the museum to acquire Radiator Building and allows Fisk to sell a second work by American modernist Marsden Hartley. The O’Keeffe painting would be loaned to Fisk for four months every four years.
A hearing on the settlement is scheduled Thursday in Chancery Court in Nashville.
Lyle must approve the settlement before it moves forward. Even if she does, Cooper could block it.
In his objection, Cooper wrote, “While the museum and Fisk have tried to characterize their actions as merely a settlement of pending legal claims and not the sale of artwork from the collection, the ultimate effect is the same.”
“The collection will no longer be intact, and the museum and Fisk will have destroyed the very thing that Miss O’Keeffe sought to preserve with the no sale, intact condition — the unique creation of the collection with its separate identity and effect,” he wrote.
Cooper raised the possibility the museum could sell the O’Keeffe and, under the settlement, owe Fisk only half the amount by which the sale price exceeds the $7.5 million. The museum’s agreement to loan the painting to Fisk then would not apply to a new owner, he said.
Cohen called the idea that the museum would sell the painting “total nonsense” and added people of Tennessee always are welcome to come to Santa Fe to see it and other O’Keeffe works.
– Associated Press
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