Officials at financially troubled Fisk University have signaled to state officials this week that the Nashville, Tenn., school is ready to sell its prized Georgia O’Keeffe painting to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum for $7 million, although other potential buyers have offered more than three times that amount in the past month.
If approved by the state and a Chancery Court in Nashville, the sale would end a legal challenge by the museum, which has challenged Fisk’s assertion that it has absolute control over the O’Keeffe painting and 100 others works. The pieces are all part of the Stieglitz Collection, a body of work donated to Fisk in 1949 by O’Keeffe. The deal would also free Fisk to sell other works in the collection, including Painting No. 3 by Marsden Hartley, which is also worth millions of dollars.
Museum officials have argued in court the museum is the representative of O’Keeffe’s interests, that the school is barred by covenant from selling the works and that the museum would fight any attempt to break up the collection unless her paintings are turned over to the museum. In a deal to resolve the dispute, Fisk agreed to sell O’Keeffe’s “Radiator Building – Night, New York” in exchange for the freedom to handle the rest of the Stieglitz Collection as it pleases. That plan was given to state attorney general Robert E. Cooper Jr., last month for approval.
In a letter to Cooper, dated March 26, attorneys for Fisk said the school had received offers from several “reputable” art dealers to purchase Radiator Building for $20-$25 million and that the planned sale “now appears to be a significant discount from the market value of Radiator Building.” The letter gave no hint as to whether Fisk will attempt to back out of the deal with the museum.
After instituting criteria for keeping the artwork at Fisk, Cooper called time out for 30 days. Characterizing the art collection as a treasure for the entire Nashville community, he told the school to take that time to explore the prospects of finding donors who would purchase the artwork and allow the school to keep it. He urged concerned citizens of Tennessee to come to the school’s aid, in the interest of the whole community. Aside from a gesture from the Nashville arts community and a few others, the calls fell on deaf ears. Even city officials and civic leaders have been largely silent on the controversial proposal.
Fisk has been roundly criticized in the arts community for negotiating what is widely considered to be a fire sale.
“I’m not that excited about them selling it at all,” says Aaronetta H. Pierce, a San Antonio-based art consultant and former member of the Fisk Board of Trustees. “If someone is willing to pay $20 million, then $7 million is too low.”
Saul Cohen, a veteran attorney and president of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, characterized the public debate as a worthless exercise.
“The painting is not for sale, can’t be sold and this is not an auction,” Cohen says. “This is a settlement. We’re a nonprofit institution. It’s not in the business of bailing out a failing institution.”
“It’s so easy to criticize,” he continues. “But anyone who knows all the facts and is grounded in reality would say ‘this is a good deal.’ If the lawsuit it not settled, the odds are Fisk would get nothing. If we go to trial and win, we get nothing, Fisk gets nothing. So let’s try to settle.”
Cohen says the museum plans to pay the $7 million over time. It has the first payment in hand and plans to raise funds to pay the balance. He says he is confident the museum will come up with the balance.
Cooper, who is expected to issue a decision on the Fisk plan within days, can endorse it and recommend its approval by Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle or reject the plan, given the new value developments, and let the case go to trial this summer.
Officials at Fisk have said the university will use proceeds from the sale of the two paintings to restore approximately $8 million to its endowment. The school has used nearly half its small endowment in recent years to pay operating expenses. Officials say Fisk will also use part of the funds to endow chairs and help finance a new classroom building. None of the proceeds would go to its art programs, except a small amount for caring for the remaining pieces in the Stieglitz Collection.
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