Fisk’s Fire Sale of O’Keeffe Painting Blocked by Tennessee Attorney General

Fisk University’s proposed sale of a priceless Georgia O’Keeffe painting was blocked Thursday by the Tennessee Attorney General, who said the sale would be “an artistic and financial loss for Fisk and would detract from the rich cultural environment of this community.”

Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. blocked a deal in which Fisk would get $7 million from the Georgia O’Keeffe museum for a prized O’Keeffe painting that could fetch three times that amount on the open market. The sale would then free the school to sell other works it had been given by the late O’Keeffe.

“It seems more appropriate to seek greater resolution of the legal issues from the court and to determine the degree of flexibility that Fisk can exercise in its stewardship of the Stieglitz Collection than to approve a one-sided settlement,” Cooper wrote in a three-page letter to lawyers for Fisk and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

O’Keeffe Museum President Saul Cohen said “no comment at this time,” when asked for a response to the decision. Cohen had been confident the settlement would prevail.

Fisk University President Hazel O’Leary said in a prepared statement the school “will intensify our preparation for trial.” In a separate statement, Fisk insisted “it must still sell one or both of the paintings to stabilize its long term financial condition.”

A July 18 hearing in the Chancery Court of Nashville has been set to hear a request from Fisk for a declaratory judgment that Fisk is the sole owner of the Stieglitz Collection. The O’Keeffe painting is the most valuable of the 101 pieces in the collection.

The O’Keeffe Museum has challenged Fisk’s claims in court, asserting that the school is barred from selling any parts of the collection by covenants agreed to in the 1940s, when the artist donated the collection to the school.

The museum agreed this winter to drop its challenge and free Fisk to sell any part of the collection it wanted, except the O’Keeffe painting. In exchange for dropping its legal challenge and giving Fisk $7 million over time, the museum would get that painting — “Radiator Building – Night, New York.”

Fisk officials have been criticized by art scholars for trying to unload the key parts of the Collection. When details of its deal with the O’Keeffe Museum became public, criticism grew louder because the sale price was so low. Still, no local or state officials or civic leaders in Tennessee came forth with a plan to block the deal and save the collection for Fisk and the city.

When the proposed settlement was presented to the attorney general in February, Cooper indicated he was inclined to approve the deal to help Fisk solve its financial problems. He delayed a final decision, however, asserting he felt it was in the interest of the state and the school to find local parties in Tennessee who would help the school keep the priceless collection, in keeping with the wishes of the donor. Under Tennessee law, the attorney general represents the interest of the people in supervising the beneficiaries of charitable gifts. 

During that cooling-off period, Fisk officials said the school had received no offers of substance from Tennessee or Nashville leaders, but had gotten several offers for “Radiator Building” from legitimate art dealers offering more than $20 million for the painting. The school also learned “Painting No.3,” by Marsden Hartley, another jewel in the Stieglitz Collection, would also bring as much as $20 million, if sold on the open market.

Cooper, whose approval of the sale was considered the last roadblock the school needed to sell the art, says the new information made it clear “… the $7 million purchase price offered by the Museum [for the O’Keeffe painting] is simply too deep a discount from the apparent market price value for this office to approve.”

Cooper says his decision should in no way affect the short term operations of Fisk, noting that the school had told him the art sale was to address the school’s “long term financial stability.” 

In admonishing the school to work harder to keep the collection, Cooper reiterated his position articulated in his February letter to the parties, saying …”the importance and significance of the Stieglitz Collection to Nashville’s art community and to historically Black colleges and universities cannot be overstated.”

Hazel O’Leary, president of Fisk for the past three years, has made the sale of the O’Keeffe and Hartley paintings the centerpiece of her plan to raise money for the school and replenish its endowment.

The endowment was drained by about $8 million — nearly half its total — to cover operating expenses in the years before O’Leary’s tenure. In previous statements, O’Leary has vowed that Fisk will win the right to sell the art works, asserting the small liberal arts college is not a museum but a school.

Beyond the art sale and stepped up alumni giving appeals, Fisk has not articulated a grand plan for fundraising from local, state or national sources.

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