Saving Stieglitz 

State attorney general enters the Fisk fray to give the people (and their art) a voice

There’s a new player in the court battle over the Stieglitz Collection at Fisk University: Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper.

There’s a new player in the court battle over the Stieglitz Collection at Fisk University: Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper. Last week, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that Cooper has the legal right to represent the interests of Tennessee citizens in the disposition of the case. The result is to add a third voice to those of Fisk and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum when the case goes to trial in July. And among the three parties, the attorney general seems to be the only one remotely interested in striking a balance between preserving Fisk and saving the Stieglitz Collection.

The case involves the two stars in the collection: Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Radiator Building—Night, New York” and Marsden Hartley’s “Painting No. 3.” O’Keeffe assigned both paintings to Fisk in 1949, when she was settling the estate of her late husband, the famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz. The university asserted that it must sell the art to stop its financial free fall.

By law, the attorney general supervises charitable gifts to Tennesseans. So in 2005, the university petitioned both the attorney general and Davidson County Chancery Court to assess its legal rights to sell the paintings. The attorney general (then Paul Summers) agreed to the sale if Fisk would try to find a buyer in Tennessee who would allow public access to the paintings.

But the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which represents the O’Keeffe’s estate, challenged the university’s freedom to sell. The museum cited correspondence between O’Keeffe and then-Fisk President Charles S. Johnson in which O’Keeffe stipulated the collection must be exhibited intact.

While lawyers for both sides skirmished over mind-numbing details, the university and museum agreed to stop their mutual hemorrhaging of legal fees and reached a settlement. The museum would buy “Radiator” for $7 million. (It would also not oppose the sale of the Hartley.) That figure was not far below a 2005 appraisal by Christie’s, which estimated the two paintings would bring approximately $8.5 million each. A protracted court battle could eat up the difference.

The university and museum asked Summers’ successor, Cooper, to approve the settlement. Cooper agreed but added a condition. He required a 30-day delay, during which Fisk would publicize the settlement to raise awareness of the collection and provide the public with an opportunity to propose some financial arrangement to keep one or both paintings at Fisk.

While Fisk ran newspaper ads seeking a Stieglitz savior, Cooper participated in a series of discussions about how to keep the collection together and Fisk solvent. According to one source familiar with the brainstorming sessions, participants included members of Fisk’s legal team, bankers, representatives of the Frist Foundation and the board of the Frist Center as well as Cooper. They kicked around alternatives, including one in which the Frist Center would serve as the collection’s custodian. The art, meanwhile, would be exhibited in rotation at Fisk and the Museum of African American Music and Art (MAAMA), which is planned for the corner of Eighth Avenue North and Jefferson Street next to the Bicentennial Mall. An $18 million capital campaign would help stabilize Fisk while contributing some funds for MAAMA as well. But this scenario never evolved beyond the talking stages.

“What hasn’t come into focus,” says one participant, “is the leadership, the Nashvillians who care deeply about the Stieglitz Collection and the ardent Fisk alumni willing to jump in and make something happen.” Another describes the stalemate as “Fisk fatigue. There’s a lack of confidence in the institution. And it seems that Fisk doesn’t really want to explore a nuanced and creative solution [for the collection], they’re just hell-bent to sell.”

Ironically, the waiting period didn’t turn up any Fisk friends, but it did reveal how seriously the university undervalued its art. During the 30 days, Fisk received offers as high as $25 million for “Radiator” and learned that the Hartley might bring as much as $20 million on the open market.

In light of the new information, Cooper declined to approve the settlement. But he did suggest that the strong value of the two paintings meant Fisk could possibly sell just one of the works (preferably the Hartley) to obtain the $16 million to $20 million it needs to stabilize its finances. “I’m looking for a way to keep Fisk viable and minimize the impact on the Stieglitz Collection,” writes Cooper. “And I continue to be interested in creative proposals to do both.”

If he doesn’t get one, the attorney general will be doing his damage control in court.

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