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Nashville Leaders Emerge to Keep Fisk Art Collection in City

A powerful coalition of Nashville business, civic and political leaders has launched an effort independent of Fisk University to keep the priceless Stieglitz Collection of art at the financially troubled school, despite the school’s wishes to do otherwise.

The move, lead by Nashville businessman T.B. Boyd III, prompted the Tennessee attorney general to ask a judge to delay a highly anticipated Feb. 19 trial at which Fisk, the state and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum were to battle over whether Fisk has the right to sell all or part of the collection and whether the collection should be turned over to the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., which contends Fisk has failed to comply with covenants governing its possession of the collection.

In papers filed late Wednesday in the Chancery Court for Davidson County, Tenn., Attorney General Robert Cooper said the proposal by The Museum of African American Music, Art and Culture in Nashville “ … provides a rare opportunity to bring the entire community together to save the Stieglitz Collection, preserve and protect African-American culture, and provide a dependable long-term source of revenue for Fisk. These benefits are far too great to sacrifice in an unnecessary rush to trial,” Cooper told Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle.

Cooper argued the proposal by the local museum, which hopes to open in 2011, envisions results that would most closely honor the intent of the Stieglitz Collection donor, the late Georgia O’Keeffe. It would keep the collection on or near the Fisk campus while making it widely accessible to students and the public and generate funds on an ongoing basis for the school.

In support of his motion, Cooper filed letters indicating serious interest in exploring the local museum proposal from Gov. Phil Bredesen, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, Francis Guess, chairman-elect of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau and current leaders of the tourism agency. Guess is also vice chair of the local museum board.

The proposed museum, announced several years ago by Boyd, is trying to raise $30 million for construction and an endowment before construction begins, hopefully next year. Toward that goal, the state has leased the museum a choice 2.6 acre tract of land near the State Capitol and about 12 blocks east of the Fisk campus in North Nashville. The city, meanwhile, has committed $10 million toward its construction. Such pledges of support plus the letters from key politicians were apparently persuasive enough for Cooper to ask the court to let the local solution group enter the Fisk drama and have time — until late June, he suggested — to fashion a detailed plan.

“For the first time, we have gotten all of the people who could make a difference for Fisk; all of us are in agreement,” museum chairman Boyd says. “We all feel it’s necessary and has to be done. It has to be a win-win for the university and win-win for the state of Tennessee.”

“We hope the president of Fisk can see that,” says Boyd, whose family’s business interests in banking and publishing in Nashville date to 1896.

Boyd says support for a local solution only galvanized in the past few weeks and it was too early to detail a plan. There was a general consensus among its proponents that the museum would form a partnership with Fisk that would allow the museum to exhibit parts of Fisk’s vast collection of artistic holdings in exchange for a fee drawn from the gifts, grants and admission fees received by the museum. Other colleges and universities in the area would participate, generating a broad base of support over the years without Fisk surrendering ownership or control of the Stieglitz Collection.

Fisk spokesman Ken West says the school would make a formal response next week when Judge Lyle holds a hearing on a variety of pre-trial motions. West notes the school has a deal with the proposed Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas and it wants the court to allow it to pursue the agreement.

That deal would give the Arkansas museum, controlled by Wal-Mart fortune heiress Alice Walton, 50 percent interest in the Stieglitz Collection for $30 million and the right to have the collection six months of each year. West also says there are questions about the viability of the local museum solution, as the local museum is trying to raise funds itself. “It’s a worthwhile project but there’s no real substance as to how it could help Fisk,” West says, echoing Fisk President Hazel O’Leary.

–Reginald Stuart

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