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Fisk University Given Chance to Start Over

Fisk University was given a new chance on Tuesday to keep the priceless art collection it has been trying to sell for nearly two years and to seek new funds another way.

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., notified a Chancery Court in Nashville, Tenn., it was voluntarily withdrawing its lawsuit seeking to wrest control of the collection from Fisk. The move represents a major concession by the museum, which had coveted a valuable O’Keeffe painting in the collection as a jewel for its own.

If approved by the Court, the museum’s “notice of voluntary nonsuit” would end a tangled legal tug of war between Fisk, the museum and the Tennessee Attorney General, a series of battles that neither Fisk nor the museum were winning.

The end of the dispute between Fisk and the O’Keeffe museum would clear the way for Fisk to respond to a proposal from Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton to provide the small, liberal arts college $30 million for half interest in the Stieglitz Collection and a promise to keep it intact in exchange for the right to display the Collection at her new museum in Bentonville, Ark., for six months a year.

On Monday, Chancery Court Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle rejected a proposal by Fisk and the O’Keefffe Museum to settle their differences under a plan that would give Fisk $7.5 million in exchange for a painting by the late Ms. O’Keeffe – “Radiator Building, Night-New York” – and a promise from the museum not to interfere with Fisk if the school decided to sell other works in the collection.

Judge Hobbs and Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr., agreed the settlement plan was not good for a variety of reasons. Both indicated they might be able to work with the Walton proposal, which surfaced late last month, while expressing some concerns about its approach. In her letter to the Attorney General, Walton said she was ready to enter “into good faith negotiations” with Fisk should the Fisk-O’Keeffe settlement fail to win Judge Lyle’s approval.

The O’Keeffe museum, which represents the estate of the late Georgia O’Keeffe, had claimed Fisk failed to maintain and display the artworks as required by O’Keefe. She donated the 101-piece collection to the school in 1948 in an effort to draw White art enthusiasts to a historically Black college campus in the days of legal segregation in the South. It has since been in storage almost as long as it has been on public display.

In her letter, Walton said she fully understood the strict conditions set forth by Ms. O’Keeffe and legal standards of the court. Walton indicated a desire to respect both as much as possible in trying to help Fisk raise significant funds, honor the state’s concerns and capture a major asset for the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Arkansas museum she founded.

“I recognize that any arrangements along the lines discussed above between Crystal Bridges and Fisk University would require the approval of the Chancery Court under the Cy Pres doctrine, which would require a finding that Fisk University’s circumstances render it practically impossible to continue to honor all of the conditions imposed on the Collection and that the new arrangement would as closely as possible preserve the donor’s original intent,” said Walton.

In her ruling Monday, Judge Lyle said the Walton plan meets all but one condition imposed by Ms. O’Keeffe, a key condition that bars Fisk from selling the Collection or parts of it, loaning or exchanging any parts. Judge Lyle indicated she could craft “legal relief” that would address those issues if Fisk sought a financial distress ruling with the Walton plan as its White knight.

Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. has indicated he prefers a plan that would allow the Stieglitz Collection to remain in Nashville on a “full-time basis.”

Judge Lyle is expected to rule quickly on the O’Keeffe request to withdraw its lawsuit.

– Reginald Stuart

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