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Judge Rejects Fisk Univ.-O’Keeffe Museum Deal, Backs Wal-Mart Heiress Proposal.

A Tennessee judge on Monday strongly suggested she may craft “legal relief” for Fisk University that would put millions of dollars in the school’s coffers while allowing it to retain ownership of the prestigious Alfred Stieglitz Collection of art and photographs, key parts of which the school has been trying to get court permission to sell for nearly two years.

The “legal relief” idea was set forth in a four-page order by Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle of the Chancery Court for the 20th Judicial District of Tennessee. The order rejected a plan by Fisk and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum of Santa Fe to settle their legal differences over control of the collection by giving the museum a priceless painting by the late Georgia O’Keeffe in exchange for Fisk getting $7.5 million. Fisk would also get an agreement from the museum not to object to what Fisk does with the rest of the 101-piece collection. 

Judge Lyle ordered a full hearing for September 18 on claims by the museum that Fisk should forfeit the entire collection on the grounds it has not maintained and displayed the collection in the manner prescribed in detail by Ms. O’Keeffe when she donated it to the school in the late 1940s. Judge Lyle said there was a risk Fisk could lose the argument that it has complied with the terms of the gift but that would not automatically result in forfeiture of the collection.

”Under New York Law, which applies to this case (O’Keeffe donated the works to Fisk while she was a New York resident), the Court could allow Fisk to retain the Collection while enjoining Fisk from violating the conditions of the gift,” Judge Lyle wrote. “Given the equitable powers of the Court in crafting injunctive relief, the Court could take into account the Crystal Bridges’ proposal,” she said.  By proceeding to trial, she said, “Fisk has a reasonable chance for a solution better than the settlement” proposed by Fisk and the O’Keeffe Museum.

The Crystal Bridges’ proposal referred to and embraced by the judge was put forth last week by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. Walton’s plan, on behalf of her new Crystal Bridges American Art Museum in Bentonville, Ark., would provide Fisk $30 million in cash, allow Fisk to retain 50 percent interest in the collection and keep the collection in tact.

Judge Lyle indicated she was inclined to approve the Walton proposal, if she ruled against the museum or Fisk in the upcoming forfeiture hearing phase of the case. However, it would be up to Fisk to follow the road map she sketched and seek court approval. It cannot unilaterally dispose of any part of the collection, as it has claimed, she reaffirmed.

”While $7.5 million might tide Fisk over, $30 million would put the University on a much firmer financial footing,” Judge Lyle wrote in comparing the two proposals. “Beyond the financial security the Crystal Bridges’ proposal provides to Fisk, the proposal gives the people of Tennessee more access to and Fisk the ability to display the important artwork Radiator Building,” the judge wrote, referring to the one piece of art the O’Keeffe Museum really wants, “Radiator Building, Night – New York,’ painted by  O’Keeffe.

”Additionally there is integrity,” wrote Judge Lyle, reminding Fisk and the O’Keeffe Museum “the law disfavors” attempts by universities to abandon “contractual or other legal obligations” whenever schools decide the obligations “have begun to impede their academic mission.” Unlike the Fisk-O’Keeffe Museum plan, the Walton plan “deviates” from only one condition imposed by Ms. O’Keeffe when she gave Fisk the art collection, the judge said: “neither Collection nor the constituent individual art works be sold, exchanged or loaned.” It is not an entire deviation, Judge Lyle said, because the Crystal Bridges plan allows Fisk to retain 50 percent ownership. 

Neither Fisk nor the O’Keeffe Museum had immediate comments on the ruling.

–Reginald Stuart

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