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Fisk University, Wal-Mart Heiress Strike Deal on Stieglitz Art Collection

The Fisk University board of trustees approved a deal this week selling the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art a 50 percent interest in the school’s prized Alfred Stieglitz Collection of art and photographs. The price: $30 million.

The plan, subject to scrutiny and approval or rejection by the Tennessee Attorney General and a Chancery Court judge in Nashville, includes a personal pledge of an additional $1 million from museum founder and Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton toward funding “renovation, improvement and maintenance” of Fisk’s historic Carl Van Vechten Gallery.

Crystal Bridges would also fund an internship program for Fisk students at the Bentonville, Ark.-based museum slated to open in 2009, under the deal announced in Nashville.

While short on a multitude of details associated with joint ventures of such complexity, the Fisk-Walton deal was hailed by both organizations as a win-win. If approved by the court, the deal would offer big presents for both institutions, at least in the short term.

“This settlement represents a great opportunity for Fisk to emerge from this lengthy and complicated process on the strongest financial footing that we have been on in decades,” said Reynaldo P. Glover, chairman of the Fisk Board of Trustees, in a joint statement from the two institutions. For her part, Walton said her museum was “honored to partner with Fisk in ownership and care of this significant collection.”

Fisk, living on the financial edge for more than a decade, would get its largest infusion of unrestricted funds ever. It has a long shopping list for use of the money, including replenishing depleted reserves, repairing dilapidated buildings on its small campus near downtown Nashville, establishing new academic chairs in the sciences and constructing several new buildings.

Giving the Van Vechten Gallery a major boost was low on its list of stated goals, as it has been trying to divest itself of the key parts of the Stieglitz collection. However, Walton’s keen interest in getting possession of the priceless collection signaled a reversal of the fortunes of Van Vechten from fix up to major overhaul.

In exchange for her unexpected offer, Walton captures a coveted modern art prize for her new museum, if only on a part-time basis. The Stieglitz collection includes two widely sought pieces of modern art — “Radiator Building –Night, New York” by the late Georgia O’Keeffe and the prized 1913 “Painting No. 3” by Marsden Hartley. The paintings are valued at more than $20 million each.

Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr., who was instrumental in blocking Fisk’s proposed sale of the O’Keeffe painting to the O’Keeffe Museum for $7.5 million and other concessions, took a wait and see attitude on the Fisk-Walton plan. Cooper wants the collection kept in Nashville full-time at Fisk, as envisioned by the 1948 covenant covering the receipt by Fisk of the Stieglitz Collection as a gift from Georgia O’Keeffe.

“We have been contacted by Fisk and the Crystal Bridges Museum about their proposal, and we are reviewing their agreement to determine whether this Office can support it and whether changes would be needed to protect the interests of the citizens of Tennessee,” said a statement from Cooper’s office. “As we have told both institutions, a significant factor in our evaluation will be whether a reasonable alternative emerges that would allow the Stieglitz Collection to remain here on a full-time basis.”

Fisk is expected to seek court approval of the Walton plan within days.The judge has expressed a strong interest in the proposal, which would have the art displayed six months out of the year in Arkansas.

– Reginald Stuart

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