O’Keeffe Museum Argues Fisk Should Forfeit Prized Art Collection

NASHVILLE Tenn.

Attorneys for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in New Mexico argued that Fisk University has violated the terms of an agreement with the late painter and should forfeit a prized art collection she donated.

In the opening day of the trial over the 101-piece Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art, lawyers for the museum set out to show that Fisk repeatedly violated the conditions of the gift O’Keeffe gave to the school in 1949. And they said the school even admits to some of it.

Fisk officials did not get a chance to present their case on Tuesday, but have said they will fight to keep the collection. The trial will resume on Wednesday morning and is expected to wrap up before week’s end. A decision by the judge, however, may take weeks.

The museum, which represents O’Keeffe’s estate and is in a long running legal battle with the school over the artwork, takes the position that the collection was supposed to be on display and intact. The works, which include O’Keeffe’s famous 1927 work “Radiator Building Night, New York,” have been in storage at a Nashville museum for about two years.

Fisk museum attorney Web Campbell read aloud court documents where the school said it had lent out 28 pieces of the collection to be in a traveling exhibition of art at historically Black universities. The school also said it had lent one of the paintings to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and to a North Carolina university.

There was no testimony on Tuesday, but museum lawyers read into the court records portions of depositions, court documents and correspondence, some of it between O’Keeffe and school officials that dates back to the 1940s.

The letters between past Fisk presidents and the painter show that the school has a long history of struggling to find the money to display and keep the collection safe.

O’Keeffe was concerned enough to wonder whether she should get the collection back, according to a portion of a letter read aloud in the courtroom.

“Would you like to consider letting me withdraw the collection?” O’Keeffe asks then-Fisk president Charles Johnson.

The financially struggling university had been seeking to sell at least some of the works and has been fought at each step by the Santa Fe museum.

Most recently, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle struck down a proposal by Fisk to sell half its share in the collection for $30 million to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

Fisk attorneys argued in opening statements that it has not “repudiated” the collection because it went to court seeking permission before it attempted to sell any works.

The works are not on display because the university is still trying to raise money to fix the Carl Van Vechten Gallery where they were being shown. “Van Vechten was closed because they were doing expensive security and fire protection work and they didn’t want it to be damaged,” attorney John Branham said.

In a deposition, Fisk President Hazel O’Leary testified that there was absolutely now way the university could display the artwork at this time.

Branham said the school, should it win the right to keep the artwork, will restore the Van Vechten gallery and display the collection.

He pointed out that much of the collection was not on display for 12 years starting in the 1970s while they were being restored.

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