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Donors May Balk at College Giving, If Fisk Prevails With Art Sale

Financially troubled Fisk University’s battle to raise badly needed cash by winning court approval to sell part ownership in its priceless art collection could hurt the school’s overall fundraising efforts and those of other colleges across the nation, say college fundraising experts around the country.

The implications of Fisk’s move could have negative consequences for other HBCUs in particular, says one of the experts contacted recently, explaining that donors see historically Black institutions through a single lens.

Most interviewed say they were unfamiliar with the specific details of Fisk’s situation or its legal efforts. Still, when given the legal scenario of a gift recipient using financial hard times as an argument to win court approval of proposed exceptions to legal restrictions on a gift, the experts were unanimous in characterizing such a move as troubling for the school directly involved and the higher education community at large. Fisk has asked a court in Tennessee to exempt it from some conditions of a major gift, in this case an art and photo collection, so it may monetize the collection to raise seriously needed money.

“The public mindset would be to help the university, if the university was in a critical place,” said Atlanta-based fundraising veteran Charles Stevens, adding that he thought it would be “hard hearted” to say the art should be preserved at the expense of saving the school.

“There are implications” however, added Stevens, who works with Skystone Ryan, a well-established, deep pockets fundraising organization.

“If I were a philanthropist and had art and wanted to preserve it after my transition, I would be a little concerned,” Stevens said. ”I would be a little leery about giving that gift.”

Stevens, who has run national fundraising campaigns for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), among others, said the Fisk action might have implications for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) “in particular,” since the giving community tends to lump HBCUs into a single group.

“When one of our institutions gets put in a situation, we (HBCUs) get put in a box,” Stevens said. “HBCUs in general would be in a negative place, if they were hoping to receive a gift,” added Stevens, referring to the potential widespread implications for other colleges should Fisk prevail with its plan.

Fisk has been in court nearly five years seeking permission to monetize its Alfred Stieglitz Collection, a rare assemblage of photographs by Stieglitz and paintings by Renoir, Cezanne, Diego Rivera and Georgia O’Keeffe. The collection was given to Fisk by O’Keeffe, Stieglitz’s widow, in the late 1940s and early 1950s with strict “no sale, no loan” provisions.

The school’s frustrated efforts appeared to get a new lease on life earlier this month when Tennessee Chancery Court Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle told the school she might grant it an exception to the legally binding restrictions imposed by O’Keeffe, if Fisk could present a plan by Oct. 8 that met the judge’s precise conditions for granting an exception.

Fisk President Hazel O’Leary, who says the school will close without the funds from the partial sale, issued a statement in response to the judge’s declaration, saying the school would comply.

If the Fisk plan to sell 50 percent interest in the collection is accepted and survives expected challenges, the school could get $30 million for its coffers from the Crystal Bridges Museum, the new Arkansas arts center backed by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. The museum would also take possession of the collection six months of each year for display at its facility in Arkansas.   

“I don’t’ support the idea of being able to change a donor’s agreement,” said Dr. Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively about Fisk’s rich history with its art collection. She is also co-author with Katherine V. Sedgewick of the awarding winning book Uplifting A People: African American Philanthropy and Education.

A sale, such as that proposed by Fisk, “sets precedent for changing donor agreements,” Gasman said. “Donors aren’t going to want to give,” added Gasman, who did archival research at Fisk for her doctoral dissertation of the late Fisk President Charles S. Johnson.

Jill Shelton, executive vice president of The Miller Group, a Colorado-based college fundraising consulting group, also sounded an alarm over the Fisk scenario.

“It would trouble me as a prospective donor,” said Shelton, referring to the prospects of colleges facing hard times seeking court relief to sell restricted gifts to raise money. “When a university starts doing things like that, it alters the trust level,” she said. Shelton added that giving—large and small—is about “trusting” that the recipient institution will honor all conditions of a gift or surrender it.   

“It (the route Fisk is pursuing) discourages other gifts from donors,” said Diana S. Newman, an Ohio-based executive with the Benefactor Group and author of Opening Doors: Pathways to Diverse Donors. Newman said she did not know of the particulars in the Fisk situation.

“Any donors aren’t too pleased about that (changing the terms of a gift), because they think it’s permanent. It’s dampening, to say the least,” said Newman, adding that the early money may help the school’s supporters, “but, overall, I think it’s a dampening effect. It makes people a little wary.”

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