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New Plans, Including One From Alumna, Presented To Keep Art Collection Intact at Fisk

A splinter group of alumni of financially troubled Fisk University, publicly asserting its opposition to the school’s plan to raise badly needed money by selling half its ownership in the Alfred Stieglitz Collection of photographs and art, has emerged with a $2.6 million plan it says will generate enough money annually to cover the costs of caring for and exhibiting the collection and give school officials time to find other ways to raise funds for the historic institution. 

The alumni plan, lead by Carol Creswell-Betsch, a member of the Fisk Class of 1955 and the daughter of the first curator of the collection at Fisk, was disclosed Friday in legal papers filed with the Chancery Court of Tennessee by Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper, a staunch opponent of the school’s ownership sale plan. Cooper has asserted the plan strays far from the binding “no sale, no loan” provisions of the restrictive covenants Fisk agreed to in the late 1940s and early 1950s when it accepted the art as a gift.

Cooper, on Friday, was responding to the newest proposal by Fisk to sell half its interest in the collection to the Arkansas-based Crystal Bridges Museum for $30 million. That deal would also allow the museum to take the collection off the school’s campus for two-year periods between now and 2017 after which a Collection Committee would devise an exhibition schedule.

In Friday’s filing, the Attorney General also advised Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle, the judge presiding over Fisk’s sale efforts, that Tennessee’s State Museum had stepped forward to participate in a proposed plan for relieving Fisk of its responsibilities for the collection while retaining ownership. Cooper presented an affidavit from the head of the State Museum saying the facility would care for and exhibit the Collection at no cost to Fisk, if Judge Lyle found either the ownership sale plan or Fisk alumni plan acceptable and if

Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts was unacceptable or could not make good on its offer to help. Lyle had earlier turned down a Cooper plan that proposed the Frist as a temporary home for the collection.

Cooper also asserted that the revised Fisk ownership sale plan would leave the school vulnerable to losing complete ownership of the collection since approving it would change the legal status of the collection from a gift, exempt from any claims filed against the school by a creditor in the event of its bankruptcy, to an asset. In the event of a school bankruptcy, which looms as a possibility, the collection would be considered “fair game” by creditors as one of the institutions’ assets.

“In fact, there is no way in which Fisk can modify its agreement with the Crystal Bridges Museum to protect the Collection from potential creditors (including the Museum) in the event of financial distress,” Cooper says in his papers opposing the revised Fisk-Crystal Bridges plan. “In order to lift the no-sale condition and approve the Crystal Bridges agreement, this court must find that Georgia O’Keeffe gave the Collection to Fisk to ensure the university’s continued financial existence. Such a holding, however, would irrevocably change the character of the gift and remove the protected status that the Collection now enjoys from creditors, particularly in any bankruptcy proceedings involving Fisk.”

“As a restricted charitable gift, the Collection currently is exempt from claims on Fisk’s assets, and its disposition is subject only to the cy pres power of this Court,” Cooper  says. “But once a state court has held that the Collection was given to Fisk to support the university’s financial health … thereby removing the gift’s restricted status, any interest that Fisk retains in the Collection becomes fair game for Fisk’s creditors,” Cooper says, asserting that “Fisk cannot have it both ways.”

Fisk has cited its pauper status (including an annual deficit in excess of $2 million, its mortgage of all its property, and a nearly depleted endowment) in court as compelling evidence for Judge Lyle to consider as she ponders what to do to relieve Fisk of its responsibility to care for the art collection. The past summer she used the school’s financial woes to determine it was legally impracticable for Fisk to continue caring for and exhibiting the collection.

Earlier this fall, Lyle indicated her willingness to consider the Fisk-Crystal Bridges proposal, if some provisions of the original agreement were eliminated. Those provisions would leave the school vulnerable to losing complete ownership over time, if it failed to meet certain conditions of the co-ownership plan in the future. It is the sale plans in their various forms over the years that have been the target of Cooper’s concerns, as he asserts the collection should not be used as a source of seed money for saving the school.

The plan put forth by the splinter group of alumni flies in the face of the united front school officials have presented over the past several years. Until this point, the Fisk board of trustees, alumni association and a series of fundraisers have appeared in lockstep with the school’s administration over the decision to monetize the collection as part of a still publicly vague effort to raise more than $100 million to pay off debts, revive its endowment, repair buildings, construct new ones, and strengthen its academic ranks.

“Selling the collection will not solve our problems,” says Creswell-Betsch. She is the organizer of a small group of Fisk alumni who have tapped their own resources and those of colleagues to raise enough money to allow Fisk to avert the sale and keep the collection on its campus at no expense. Creswell-Betsch has formed the “Pearl Creswell Fund for the Alfred Stieglitz Collection at Fisk University.” The fund would be administered by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, a long-established nonprofit that administers several hundred million dollars in donations for various good-will efforts in Nashville and surrounding counties.

An affidavit of Ellen Lehman, president of the foundation, filed with the court says the agency has commitments that ensure “the permanently” endowed Pearl Creswell Fund would have a base principal of “at least” $2.6 million. Lehman said that earmarked fund would generate at least $131,000 a year in earned income to Fisk for the “sole purpose” of caring for and displaying the Stieglitz Collection at the Carl Van Vechten Gallery at Fisk. The $131,000 figure is the amount Fisk has said in court it spends each year to take care of and exhibit the collection.

Judge Lyle is expected to rule on the various proposals later this fall.

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