Wal-Mart Heiress Makes Bid For Fisk University’s Art

Fisk University’s campaign to raise funds by selling key parts of its prized art collection has attracted a new suitor with a new approach  – Alice Walton, the billionaire daughter of the late Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart stores.

Walton, in a letter sent late last month to Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr., proposed purchasing half interest in the collection for $30 million in exchange for allowing it to be housed at her new museum in Bentonville, Ark., for six months a year. It would be housed at Fisk for six months a year.

Walton also promised to keep the 101-piece Alfred Stieglitz Collection in tact for perpetuity, as required by Georgia O’Keeffe when she gave Fisk the collection in the late 1940s. The collection is named after O’Keeffe’s late husband, pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

“I recognize the tragedy that would occur if Fisk University were to cease to operate,” wrote Walton, founder of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which is set to open in 2009. “Without knowing more, I would have to assume that Georgia O’Keeffe recognized the importance of Fisk University and wished to support Fisk University by selecting it to receive such an important and personally significant collection of artworks.”

Breaking up the Stieglitz collection, Walton argued, “…would be a tragedy of historical significance.”

Walton, an art enthusiast who has had no prior public relationship with Fisk, said her proposal “not only would keep this historically important collection in tact, but it would double (at least) the funds available to Fisk University to support its continuing interest in the Collection and its educational mission.”

Fisk has said publicly it wants a significant infusion of money to replenish itself and grow. It has identified the Stieglitz Collection as its cash cow. However, it has not argued directly in court or other forums that it is on the brink of financial disaster. Also, Fisk President Hazel O’Leary is on public record as wanting to sell the two most valuable pieces of the Stieglitz Collection to quickly raise the cash she wants. She wants to replenish funds that previous presidents borrowed from the school’s endowment and fund new construction and teaching professorships in the sciences.

O’Leary, president for three years, argues Fisk is not in the business of collecting and maintaining art such as that in the Stieglitz Collection, rejecting the position of predecessors dating to the 1940s.

Walton’s offer came as lawyers for Fisk and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum prepared for a court hearing Sept. 6 in Nashville on their joint request to settle their dispute over control of the collection by allowing Fisk to sell the O’Keeffe museum one piece of art – “Radiator Building – Night, New York” – painted by the late Ms. O’Keeffe. The school would get $7.5 million and the right to dispose of the rest of the collection as it wishes.

Cooper, who represents the state’s interest in protecting charitable gifts, and the Chancery Court rejected the Fisk-O’Keeffe Museum plan earlier this summer, saying it violated the terms of Ms. O’Keeffe’s gift in many of ways. Fisk nor the museum have made any materially new arguments since the court’s ruling in June.

Walton told Attorney General Cooper her museum would be waiting in the wings to pursue negotiations with Fisk, should Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle stand by her earlier ruling and bar Fisk from settling its legal problems with the O’Keeffe museum by breaking up the Stieglitz Collection.

Fisk nor the O’Keeffe Museum have commented publicly on the Walton overture.

In a letter of response to Walton, Cooper said he would be guided by the court’s actions in addressing the dispute between Fisk and the O’Keeffe museum.

Cooper did reiterate his firm position that the collection should be kept by Fisk in Nashville, as  O’Keeffe and Fisk had agreed in letters of transmission in the late 1940s.

“…I have repeatedly expressed the desire for a proposal to emerge that would allow the Stieglitz College to remain in Nashville on a full-time basis,” Cooper wrote. “ … I am sure that you understand that I would support any such appropriate local arrangement.”

– Reginald Stuart

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