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Court Decision May End Fisk Art Case

Tom Joyner Fantastic Voyage 2024 Graphics

Fisk University may soon be able to generate cash from its 101-piece art collection donated by the late painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

On Monday, the Tennessee Supreme Court announced that it would let stand a ruling allowing the historically black university to complete a $30 million deal to sell a 50 percent stake in the collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark.

The decision may mean the legal battle that’s lasted more than a decade is all but over.

Officials at the cash-strapped Nashville school have said Fisk might be forced to close if it didn’t sell the stake in the Stieglitz Collection to the museum built by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton.

“We’re feeling pretty happy here,” Fisk President Hazel O’Leary said. “We felt we had the clarity that the law was in our favor.”

She said only a few administrative details need to be worked out before the case is closed.

The state of Tennessee has fought to keep the collection in Nashville. State lawyers argued that allowing the deal would have a chilling effect on future donations here because Fisk is going against the stipulations O’Keeffe made when she donated the collection to the school in 1949.

A spokeswoman for the state attorney’s office said lawyers for the state were disappointed by the decision. It lets stand last year’s Court of Appeals ruling that gave Fisk the green light to go ahead with the deal.

State attorneys had also argued that the art collection is a part of Nashville’s cultural history and it needs to be protected because of the risk that it could be lost to Fisk’s creditors. They said there is a risk that the entire collection could ultimately wind up in the Arkansas museum because of some of the wording in the contract between it and Fisk.

Under the proposed deal, the Arkansas museum would house the art two out of every four years. But the contract says the museum also has the right of first refusal for the remaining 50 percent of the collection.

O’Keeffe donated 97 pieces of art to Fisk from the estate of her late husband, photographer Alfred Stiegltiz. The collection includes works by Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Demuth, among others. O’Keeffe also donated four of her paintings to the school because Fisk educated blacks in the segregated south.

But she stipulated that the collection must never be sold or broken up. Fisk had argued that the $131,000 annual cost to display the art was more than the school could afford.

O’Leary said one of the questions that now must be resolved is whether $1 million that Walton pledged to Fisk is adequate to upgrade the display place.