Saving Stieglitz 

Imagine the Nashville Symphony without its string section, the Titans without their offensive line, the city’s meat-and-threes without the meat. The visual arts landscape of Nashville is facing a parallel prospect.
Imagine the Nashville Symphony without its string section, the Titans without their offensive line, the city’s meat-and-threes without the meat. The visual arts landscape of Nashville is facing a parallel prospect with the threat to the Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art at Fisk University. In November, Fisk officials placed the entire collection in storage at the Frist Center while it sought permission from the state Attorney General’s Office and Davidson County Chancery Court to sell two of the collection’s most significant paintings: Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Radiator Building” and Marsden Hartley’s “Painting No. 3.” The Attorney General’s Office said it has no legal objections to the sale. But the New Mexico-based Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation challenged the university’s freedom to sell, citing as evidence a letter from O’Keeffe—Alfred Stieglitz’s widow and the executor of his estate—to then-Fisk President Charles S. Johnson specifying that the university “will not at any time sell or exchange any of the objects in the Stieglitz Collection.” Vanderbilt professor Vivien Fryd, the author of a book on O’Keeffe, says she’s “not surprised that the O’Keeffe Foundation is protesting the sale. They’re meticulous about following her wishes. And O’Keeffe was a real stickler.” The artist outlined very specific rules to all the institutions she chose to receive Stieglitz’s effects—including the Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Perhaps understandably, O’Keeffe cared more about the art than the institution housing it. According to Roxana Robinson’s biography of O’Keeffe, “When it became apparent [in the early 1970s] that the university lacked the funds for the maintenance and insurance of the collection, O’Keeffe reclaimed it for restoration.” The artist only allowed the collection to return to the university in 1984, after a campaign led by the late Peggy Steine produced sufficient funds to renovate Fisk’s Van Vechten Gallery. There’s no question that Fisk needs the estimated $16 million to $20 million the two paintings could bring. University spokesman Ken West says the proceeds of the sale would be used for capital improvements, including “seed financing” for a new science building. (The current one is 75 years old.) The funds would also be used to replenish the university’s paltry $7.6 million endowment, as well as to endow chairs in business, science and math. The Van Vechten Gallery would receive $600,000 in renovation funds for better security, fire protection and climate control. All these goals are worthy, and necessary if Fisk is going to do more than tread water. But it doesn’t take an economics wizard to realize that the proceeds would barely accomplish them, particularly with the escalating costs of construction and renovation. And it doesn’t take a prophet to realize that the same millions are a drop in the bucket in securing Fisk’s financial viability. Despite the university’s pledge that only the O’Keeffe and Hartley will be sold, the fear in the arts community is that this sale—if legally sanctioned—would be just the first of many, as other pressing needs loom on the university’s horizon. And if the legal decision goes against Fisk, what then? The Stieglitz Collection remains in storage limbo. Many chapters in many books have been written about the contributions to American art history of not just O’Keeffe and Hartley, but also the other artists represented in the Stieglitz Collection. The interconnected nature of their achievements would be less easily apprehended if any of the pieces departs. Many more words have been printed about Stieglitz as the man who demonstrated that photography was a fine art, who introduced European modernism to America, who championed homegrown modernism with exhibits at his series of galleries and direct financial support to the artists. Fisk’s Stieglitz Collection represents this man as artist, collector and advocate more completely than any other in the country because, as art consultant Susan Knowles puts it, “it contains all the periods of Stieglitz’s gallery life.” What’s less understood is the role of the Stieglitz Collection in the larger context of Nashville’s art scene. Taken together, the Cowan Collection at the Parthenon and the collections of the Cheekwood Museum of Art and Fisk present a solid survey of American art in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The works at Fisk “dovetail beautifully because they supply the avant-garde, they pick up where we leave off,” Parthenon director Wesley Paine says. The erosion of the Fisk collection would erode the city’s art story as a whole. Fisk officials are correct in claiming that circumstances have changed since the university accepted the gift in 1949 with O’Keeffe’s rigorous conditions attached. It’s also true that the threat to the integrity of the Stieglitz Collection, as Paine says, “is an issue, not just for the arts community, but for the whole community.” Surely a city that can find $114 million for a new symphony hall can develop a solution to keep all of the Stieglitz Collection in Nashville while removing the perennial financial burden that the collection places on Fisk.


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