A financially faltering historically black university is seeking a quick ruling on whether it can sell a 50 percent stake in a 101-piece collection of artworks donated by Georgia O’Keeffe in 1949.
But first Fisk University will have to overcome the protests of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., which has tried to force Fisk to forfeit the entire collection to it.
Saul Cohen, president of the museum’s board, said Fisk has violated O’Keeffe’s wishes by not displaying the collection and by trying to sell off artworks.
“Since the conditions (of the bequest) have been breached, the gift should revert to the museum, which is standing in Georgia O’Keeffe’s shoes,” he said.
But Fisk and an O’Keeffe expert disagree with Cohen about whether the museum is entitled to speak on the late artist’s behalf.
“The Museum is not a credible arbiter of O’Keeffe’s intent,” Fisk’s lawyers said in a court filing Friday.
Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, said: “Saul Cohen is fantasizing about what he thinks O’Keeffe wanted.”
O’Keeffe in 1949 divided the bulk of her late husband Alfred Stieglitz’s nearly 1,000-piece collection of paintings, sculptures, prints and photos among six institutions.
The artworks given to Fisk included O’Keeffe’s own 1927 oil painting “Radiator Building Night, New York” and works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
Reynolds argued that the O’Keeffe Museum should have no claim to the collection since it came from Stieglitz’s estate and not O’Keeffe’s.
Nashville Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle rejected an earlier settlement between Fisk and the O’Keeffe Museum that would have sent the “Radiator Building” painting to New Mexico for $7.5 million and allowed the school to sell another painting by modernist Marsden Hartley on the open market.
Reynolds estimated that the “Radiator Building” painting alone could fetch more than $25 million on the open market, and Cohen said Hartley’s “Painting No. 3” could go for between $15 million and $20 million.
“The entire collection kept together has another exponential value of its own,” Reynolds said.
Fisk University was founded in 1866 to educate former slaves, but the school has struggled throughout its history to raise money and nearly closed 20 years ago because of lack of funding. Its Carl Van Vechten Gallery, which houses the Stieglitz Collection, has fallen into disrepair.
The entire collection is now in storage at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts.
The school has said it needs to generate money off the collection to remain viable, but the O’Keeffe museum has cited an earlier ruling by Lyle that O’Keeffe never wanted the collection to be used for generating revenue.
Reynolds said the art museum community generally condemns the sale of art to raise money for anything other than buying more art.
The latest offer from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, would pay Fisk $30 million for a 50 percent stake in the collection and would split display time between Nashville and Bentonville, Ark. Crystal Bridges was founded by Alice Walton, daughter of late Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.
“At least a partnership of sharing the collection and keeping it in tact is more desirable … than to just break it up and sell things off,” Reynolds said.
A judge was scheduled to rule on Monday whether to grant an expedited trial for the Crystal Bridges proposal.
Cohen said he’d be open to reviving the previous settlement if the current deal with the Crystal Bridges Museum is scuttled.
Reynolds questioned the motivations for protesting the new deal since the previous O’Keeffe Museum settlement would have removed two of the most important works from the collection.
“They’re the most hypocritical bunch of looters I’ve ever run across,” he said.
On the Net:
Crystal Bridges Museum: http://www.crystalbridges.org
Fisk University: http://www.fisk.edu
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum: http://www.okeeffemuseum.org\
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