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It’s Crunch Time for Fisk

It’s Crunch Time for Fisk
Nashville HBCU heads back to court over art dispute, while also trying to meet a fundraising challenge.



Fisk University, the small, historicall Black liberal arts college, heads back to court this month for a showdown trial with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the state of Tennessee. They are fighting over whether Fisk can sell all or part of its priceless Stieglitz Collection of art to raise badly needed cash quickly, a move that would violate the conditions agreed upon in the late 1940s with the donor of the art, the late Georgia O’Keeffe (see Diverse, May 31, 2007).

Outside the court, Fisk is being pushed to step up its fundraising game by a challenge from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to raise $4 million in cash by June 30. If successful, Fisk will get an additional $2 million from the foundation. Mellon, which gave Fisk $1 million in December to help keep the school’s doors open this academic year, is the only philanthropic group in the nation to step forward with big help since Fisk declared last fall it would run out of operating money in December absent a major infusion of cash.

Fisk is recognized as one of the flagship institutions in the sector, and we believe the collapse of any one of the top HBCUs would be a blow to the entire sector,” says Dr. Carlotta M. Arthur, program officer at the Mellon Foundation, explaining why it stepped forward. “We hope that other foundations and donors will see the importance of Fisk in its efforts and will contribute to this cause.”

The court trial over the Stieglitz Collection, which starts Feb. 19, is a crucial chapter in a controversial effort by Fisk to rid itself of part or all of the prized 101-piece collection to raise money. The effort by Fisk President Hazel O’Leary, backed by the university’s board and alumni president, has become increasingly mired in costly legal skirmishes since O’Leary advanced the idea in the fall of 2005.

In the past year, the court has rejected two different attempts by Fisk to strike a deal with the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M. Both were characterized by Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper and the court as major violations of the covenants governing O’Keeffe’s donation and deals that would have the school surrendering the art for millions of dollars less than what it is said to be worth on the market.

Late last summer, Alice Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune and founder of the new Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas, offered $30 million and an assortment of other aid to the school for half interest in the collection, a move Walton claimed would help the school and her museum and would not violate the terms of O’Keeffe’s gift. That offer, later criticized by Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen as too cheap, is on hold pending the outcome of the February trial. There are several key questions at issue in the trial.

One is whether it is impractical or impossible for Fisk to honor the conditions of O’Keeffe’s gift, given the school’s financial slide. Fisk, which told the court last fall it has mortgaged nearly all of its assets to raise operating cash, has argued repeatedly to the court over the past year that it cannot afford mto educate students and maintain the collection as required.

The court will hear testimony and be asked to decide whether Walton’s proposal most closely follows the intent of O’Keeffe’s conditions and whether part or all of the collection should go back to her estate and its successors, in this case the O’Keeffe Museum, should Fisk breach the conditions of the gift.

O’Leary and the school’s lawyers have declined repeated requests since last summer to discuss the Stieglitz case, which has divided faculty, alumni and other supporters of the school.

Meanwhile, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which has come under fire from O’Leary supporters for tying the school up in a costly legal dispute, is going for the jugular in its efforts to capture the collection if the court allows all or parts of it to be surrendered by Fisk. In preparation for trial, it has deposed a number of individuals and even subpoenaed all records of the Atlantabased Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting agency that has kept records on Fisk’s financial standing since it was first accredited more than 50 years ago.

We have a contractual obligation with the O’Keeffe Foundation to continue the fight,” says Saul Cohen, a Santa Fe lawyer and chairman of the museum. “It’s a sense  of moral obligation. Georgia O’Keeffe did not want the collection split up and exhibited away (as Walton has proposed). We feel a moral obligation to see to it that does not happen.”

Cohen says the foundation’s legal bills in the Fisk battle have been “very substantial, easily in six figures,” and he speculates the school’s legal tab is probably the same, if not more. “It was one of the reasons I wanted settlement,” he says, referring to one of the earlier fire sale deals struck with Fisk but rejected by the court.

On the fundraising front, Fisk’s challenge appears daunting, particularly given the slide in the nation’s economy in recent months and the untimely death in November of Reynaldo Glover, the 64-year-old Fisk alumnus and board chairman. Glover, who had pancreatic cancer, was a staunch backer of O’Leary’s agenda.

In December, the Fisk board chose fellow board member Robert W. Norton, retired senior vice president at Pfizer Inc., as chair. Norton has been active in providing financial support to Fisk and in November pledged $1 million to the school’s “Fisk Forever” Scholarship Fund.

To meet Mellon’s June 30 challenge, Fisk officials have divided the labor. Fisk’s alumni association, already giving at a level much higher than the national average, will decide this month what share of the goal it plans to raise. The board has pledged to bring in $2 million. The school, which has a reputation as an isolationist, plans to rely on an aggressive pubic fundraising campaign to bring in the balance. By mid-January, the school had collected close to half a million dollars toward the $4 million goal, with local churches contributing close to $100,000.

The Mellon Foundation has also given the UNCF a grant to help Fisk write a comprehensive fundraising plan that looks beyond the stop-gap aid and challenge grant the foundation is providing.

This is one of the real challenging moments in the life of Fisk,” notes a higher education veteran who says his role in helping resolve the Fisk crisis would be precluded if quoted by name. “This time the work won’t be finished until the board and administration put Fisk on a solid financial footing with an appropriate endowment and operating budget,” he says, adding the Walton proposal, while admirable, would help Fisk for only two or three years, not for the long term. D

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