O’Keeffe Museum to Stand Down in Battle With Fisk Over Art Collection

In a surprise turn of events, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe has decided against appealing a Tennessee judge’s decision ordering Fisk University to keep and display a priceless collection of art and photographs the museum had sought to repossess.

It plans to hold its fire, for the moment.

“You don’t appeal when you have won,” said Saul Cohen, chairman of the museum, referring to Thursday’s ruling by Chancery Court Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle. The ruling forced Fisk to abide by the strict conditions governing the 101-piece Alfred Stieglitz Collection or face contempt of court citations, fines and loss of the collection. The conditions were imposed in 1949 by Georgia O’Keeffe, the late artist who gave Fisk the collection.

“Our goal was not to get the collection back and taken away from Fisk,” said Cohen, whose museum is the legal heir to O’Keeffe’s estate. “Our goal was to establish that Fisk was legally bound to follow the conditions (of the gift). And that has been done. As far as we are concerned, it’s a complete victory.”

Fisk had petitioned the court in December of 2005, seeking a declaration that it was sole owner of the art collection, not bound by O’Keeffe’s conditions and had the legal right to dispose of any or all parts of it as the school saw fit.

In a series of rulings since, culminating with a trial in February and last week’s final order, Lyle said the laws governing charitable gifts require Fisk to abide by the original terms of the gift. They included provisions that the collection be kept in tact for perpetuity, never sold or loaned.

In her ruling last week, Lyle gave Fisk until Oct. 6 to remove the collection from storage (where it has been since November 2005) and have it on display in the campus’s principal art gallery or risk losing it to the O’Keeffe Museum.

In a reversal of its two-year position that it could not afford to do that, Fisk told the judge at trial in February the school now has the financial wherewithal to bring the collection back to public view by fall and would do so, if ordered by the court. It also declared it had no interest in selling the collection, a reversal of its position that followed a pre-trial ruling by Lyle barring sale of the collection or part ownership in it.   

“She’s holding their feet to the fire,” Cohen said of Judge Lyle, in a telephone interview on Friday. “That was what our complaint was about…to keep Fisk from breaching the conditions of the gift. We’re trying to help Fisk.”

Cohen said the museum “will remain concerned that Fisk do what the court has ordered Fisk to do. If they violate the rule now, they’d be in contempt of court,” he said, leaving the door open for the museum to move quickly to take possession of the collection.

Fisk officials did not return calls placed last week seeking comment on the court ruling.

However, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper, who had aggressively fought Fisk in an effort to keep the small treasure in Nashville, expressed delight with the judge’s final order in the case.

“We are pleased that Chancellor (Lyle) has ruled that Fisk University can keep the Stieglitz Collection and has recognized the public’s interest in this unique cultural resource,” said a statement from Cooper’s office. “We are confident that Fisk can meet the requirements that the Court has set.”

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