Fisk Completes Deal to Sell Stake in Prized Stieglitz Art and Photo Collection

Fisk University has quietly consummated its controversial plan to sell half of its ownership in the prestigious Stieglitz Collection of art and photographs for $30 million cash and other considerations to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the new Arkansas-based venue backed by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton.

Lawyers for the historic institution and the museum reportedly negotiated the final sale plan during the last few months and concluded the deal in mid-June, according to sources knowledgeable with the so-called ownership sharing plan. Fisk this week stayed mum on the matter.

“We are not permitted to talk about this until the final order is issued by the chancery court,” Fisk said in a statement this week, in referring to a requirement by the Tennessee Supreme Court that the university and museum outline in greater detail to a Nashville trial court their long-term plan for caring for the collection. That process, which has not commenced, is widely considered a routine matter with no major legal questions over the proposed ownership sale to be argued.

“We are looking forward to working with Fisk University as we enter our collection sharing partnership and begin presenting the Stieglitz Collection to the very large—and growing—Crystal Bridges audience,” said a museum statement quoting Don Bacigalupi, executive director.

The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of art and photographs is a 101-piece collection given to Fisk in the late 1940s by the late artist Georgia O’Keeffe, widow of photographer Stieglitz. Her gift included a shopping list of rigid stipulations governing the gift. Among the stipulations was a prohibition on the collection being sold or broken into parts.

Fisk, beset with debt, falling enrollment and no generous benefactors over the past two decades, decided nearly a decade ago to seek court relief from the O’Keeffe restrictions in order to monetize the collection to help save the school. The university’s formal legal efforts, dating to the fall of 2005, encountered a headwind of opposition along the way.

The Tennessee Attorney General argued that the idea of selling any part of the collection or ownership and having it travel for long periods of time ran counter to nationally recognized legal standards of charitable giving that stress honoring the “original intent” of a donor. Any deviation, the state ordered, should closely reflect the wishes of the donor under legal criteria called cy pres standards.

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which had originally struck a deal to buy some of the art, argued that the collection should be returned to her “estate” if the school wanted to negate the donor intent and monetize the collection.

More recently, a splinter group of legacy alumni argued that the sale idea was a bad one, noting Fisk’s long history in the visual arts and the role the oft-neglected Stieglitz Collection could play in recharging the school’s standing in that field. They offered to put money into a secured endowment to pay for the care and upkeep of the collection. The school administration adamantly rejected the legacy alumni appeals in oftentimes bitter, personal exchanges.

The university persevered, despite the opposition and legal costs. In April of this spring, the Tennessee Supreme Court backed the university’s efforts, removing the last major legal challenge to the proposed sale.

The sources, who confirmed consummation of the sale, were not clear whether Fisk had gained immediate access to the funds or whether the money is being held—by mutual agreement—in something akin to an escrow pending the filing of a final detailed description of the joint owners’ plan for caring for the collection. The plan must be filed with and approved by Davidson County (Nashville, Tennessee) Chancery Court Ellen Hobbs Lyle. She has overseen the case since its start six years ago.

That technical question aside, the windfall of cash on the institution’s books at this point in time could help it achieve a number of other urgent objectives.

Record of the income could be used to demonstrate a strengthened financial condition, addressing a major concern of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the regional accrediting agency. Fisk must file an updated “monitoring report” with SACS this fall, addressing myriad concerns about the institution. That report will be key to the agency’s deliberations in December on what steps to take next in dealing with Fisk. It is on probation with SACS.

The windfall of funds could also enhance the university’s appeal to prospective presidential candidates. It is competing with more than a dozen public and private colleges for new chief executives. Fisk president Hazel O’Leary is set to retire from her post in December.  

While Fisk has generally earmarked most of the revenue it would get from the sale of 50 percent ownership in the art collection for repaying loans from its endowment, paying off loans on its property, and establishing new and endowing several academic chairs, the potential availability of $30 million cash for a small institution during this economy could be a selling point for any school its size.

Fisk, whose enrollment has steadily declined in the past decade to approximately 600 students, just completed its annual development campaign last month, reportedly raising nearly $3.9 million 

Fisk officials indicated this spring that they anticipate the ownership sharing agreement could start next year. When Fisk and the museum last publicly shared their ideas of how the co-ownership plan would work, they envisioned rotating the art collection for periods of two to three years between the museum in Bentonville, Ark., and its permanent location in the Carl Van Vechten Gallery on the Fisk campus in Nashville.

In addition, Crystal Bridges founder Alice Walton had reportedly established a $1 million endowment from which Fisk could draw funds to help pay for its share of collection care, upkeep and maintenance. The new museum would also offer internships to Fisk students.

Oversight of the entire sharing agreement would rest in the hands of a panel with members appointed by Fisk and the museum. It could not be determined what parts of that plan will be included in the final plan to be filed with the state court in Nashville.