Judge Rules Fisk Cannot Sell Priceless Art Collection for Any Reason

In a major setback for Fisk University, a Tennessee judge has barred the school from selling any or all of its priceless 101 piece Stieglitz Collection of art to raise money to support the financially troubled school.

The ruling late Friday by Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle stunned university officials who have spent the last two years trying to unload key pieces of art in the collection by the late Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley in hopes of quickly raising millions of dollars to help the school reverse its sagging fortunes.

Instead, the effort has turned into a costly legal quagmire for Fisk with the latest ruling raising the prospect the school could lose the whole collection to O’Keeffe’s heirs who have charged Fisk has not lived up to the terms imposed on it when it received the collection in 1949.

“We’re researching our options for appeal,” said Ken West, the Fisk spokesman, referring to Judge Lyle’s Friday ruling.

For sure, the judge’s ruling appears to put even more pressure on Fisk to pursue aggressive fundraising like many of its sister schools, something Fisk has not done effectively in years. Presently, it is trying to raise $4 million in unrestricted funds by June 30 to meet a challenge grant offer from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the only national philanthropy to come to the school’s aid with substantial funds since Fisk declared last fall it was running out of operating capital.

Judge Lyle’s detailed memorandum and order also significantly narrowed the scope of a trial set for February 19 in Nashville at which Fisk had hoped to convince the judge the school has the sole authority to determine the future of the Stieglitz, a collection of paintings and photos given to Fisk by O’Keeffe with a number of covenants or conditions agreed to by the school. Among them was agreement the collection would be kept in tact for perpetuity and never sold or loaned.

With the sale question resolved in the court’s eyes by this pre-trail decision, the case will more likely focus on whether Fisk should be allowed to keep the collection or ordered to return it to O’Keeffe’s heirs, in this case the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M.

The O’Keeffe museum, which had a deal with Fisk last spring to buy the two paintings at a fire sale price but was rebuffed by Judge Lyle, is now seeking outright return of the entire collection. It contends Fisk has violated the terms of the gift by not exhibiting and caring for the collection as agreed upon with O’Keeffe. Fisk has declared that it is not in the “museum” business and has told the court it cannot afford to comply with the terms of O’Keeffe’s gift and wants to sell parts of the collection to save the school.

“The record establishes that Ms. O’Keeffe’s intent was specific,” Judge Lyle said, in a ruling she said she issued with “ … great reluctance…” “She (O’Keeffe) did not intend for Fisk to be able to dispose of the collection in whole or in part,” Judge Lyle wrote, basing her decision on correspondence between the school and O’Keeffe and New York law, which governs the gift since it was made by O’Keeffe while a resident of New York.

“The record further establishes as to specific intent that if presented with the current circumstances of the collection being sold by Fisk to solve its financial crisis, Ms. O’Keeffe intended for the collection to be returned to her (and since she is now deceased, her successor),” Lyle ruled. In doing so, she recognized what the museum community calls the “dead hand rule,” the ability of a person to control their estate long after their death by the written agreements made prior to expiring.

The ruling means Fisk cannot go forward with a deal struck last fall between Fisk and the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas to sell the museum half interest in the collection for $30 million cash and other considerations. “Fisk must find another alternative to its financial crisis,” the judge said.

Lyle said the deal with Crystal Bridges, run by Wal-Mart fortune heiress Alice Walton, “is too far afield” from O’Keeffe’s intent and “unlawfully dilutes” these “predominant intentions that motivated” O’Keeffe to give the school the collection.

— Reginald Stuart


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