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Fisk Battles Donor Fatigue as Art Sale Bogs Down in Courts


Despite two years of trying, Fisk University hasn’t been able to turn any of the valuable art donated by painter Georgia O’Keeffe into cash.

While a legal fight over the latest $30 million proposal to share the 101-piece art collection with an Arkansas museum is scheduled for trial in February, leaders of the struggling historically Black university acknowledge that it could be years before any money changes hands.

So the school founded in 1866 to educate former slaves has had to look elsewhere to keep its doors open — a difficult task in a community that has been asked to come to the school’s financial rescue several times before.

“There is a fatigue factor there,” said Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat and a former Nashville mayor. “There’s a lot of people who give money traditionally for valuable projects who have given money to Fisk in the past, who don’t think they’ve necessarily fixed the underlying problems.

“They are really in the mode of ‘I’m kind of through with that.’”

Fisk President Hazel O’Leary earlier this month set a goal of raising $6.2 million by June 30, an effort that got a big boost this month when the New York-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced it would give the school grants worth up to $3 million.

The Mellon Foundation, which awards grants to historically Black colleges and universities among several other endeavors, said Fisk will receive $1 million up front.

A separate fundraising effort by Black churches in Nashville has netted about $25,000 so far.

Fisk’s board of trustees in December 2005 voted to try to sell off two signature pieces of the art collection to help keep the school afloat. Those efforts became bogged down in court battles over whether the sale of paintings violated the terms of O’Keeffe’s bequest, and a Fisk lawyer told the judge that the school was likely to run out of cash before the end of the year.

The Mellon grant has halted that cash-flow crisis, but some feel that the school waited too long to focus on fundraising efforts because of a preoccupation with selling the art that was donated in 1949.

“Why opt for the strategy of selling your art rather than developing a capital campaign?” said Dr. Lucius Outlaw Jr., a Vanderbilt professor and Fisk alumnus. “The normal way of managing an institution is to have developed and implemented a plan for substantial fundraising to build an endowment.”

Davis Carr, a former member of the school’s board, said donors are frightened off by Fisk’s financial problems over the decades.

The university had to borrow money in the late in 1970s and averted a shutdown in the early 1980s thanks in large part to donations from Nashvillians and alumni.

Fisk reported operating losses totaled more than $7 million in 2005 and 2006, according to, which tracks the finances of nonprofit organizations.

Fisk’s lawyers have said the school has mortgaged all of its buildings and tapped out all of its endowment not restricted to specific programs.

A 2002 plan to boost enrollment by about 500 students over four years never came to fruition, and the school’s student body remains at fewer than 900 students.

“Foundations who give serious money don’t give it to poorly managed institutions,” Carr said. “I’m not saying Fisk is currently poorly managed, but if they’ve not been able to make it work over some long period of time, that sends a signal.”

Fisk officials didn’t respond to a call seeking comment for this story.

Fisk is seeking court approval to sell a 50 percent stake in the art collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for $30 million. Under that arrangement, the collection would travel between Nashville and the Bentonville, Ark., museum founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton.

The artworks include O’Keeffe’s own 1927 oil painting, “Radiator Building — Night, New York,” and works by Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Paul Cezanne and Alfred Maurer.

The donation was part of the nearly 1,000-piece collection of O’Keeffe’s husband, photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, that she gave away after he died in 1946. O’Keeffe died in 1986.

Fisk lost a bid to remove one obstacle to the art sale last week when a judge ruled that the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum can remain involved in the lawsuit over the collection.

The Santa Fe, N.M., museum wants the judge to strike down the Crystal Bridges deal because of O’Keeffe’s wishes that the collection not be sold. The museum claims the school is also violating a condition that the collection be actively displayed. Fisk put the art into storage in 2005 when it concluded that displaying it could damage the pieces.

Bredesen, who has said Fisk has agreed to a bad deal with the Crystal Bridges museum, said he hopes the school is able to find a way out of its financial troubles.

“I would love to see Fisk be made more stable, I think there is a function for it to fulfill,” he said. “There are historically Black colleges that are doing fine today.

“Fisk has just got to find its legs in this matter and get it done.”

Associated Press


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