Stieglitz Again 

A proposal surfaces for Fisk to partner with a new African American museum

For the first time in the whole debate over the fate of Fisk University’s Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art, some members of Nashville’s African American community have joined the ranks of those trying to keep the collection intact and in the city. In a Jan. 22 letter to Dr. T. B. Boyd, chairman of the foundation developing the Museum of African American Music Art and Culture (MAAMAC), Lucius T. Outlaw Jr., chair of the museum’s storyline committee, proposes “a formal partnership between MAAMAC and Fisk.” MAAMAC would provide Fisk with a showcase for its “world-class holdings in art” and musicology in return for “a steady stream of revenue from/through MAAMAC” to shore up the university’s “financial underpinnings and facilitate its recovery.” MAAMAC is an institution planned for the site at the corner of Jefferson Street and Eighth Avenue just north of the Farmers Market and flanking the Bicentennial Mall. The state, which owns the property, has committed to a long-term/low-cost lease to the museum. And Metro has pledged $10 million to the capital campaign for the building, which is expected to be about a $30 million project, including a $5 million endowment. In Outlaw’s scenario, the museum would display not only the embattled Stieglitz Collection, but also selections from Fisk’s extensive collections of African and African American art and music artifacts. The university would retain ownership of the Stieglitz Collection, thus fulfilling one of the key provisions made by donor Georgia O’Keeffe when she assigned the collection of her late husband to Fisk in 1949. And Fisk would be able to turn what has been a drain on its finances—for the collection’s maintenance and exhibition—into a source of revenue. Outlaw tells the Scene that he foresees the museum drawing on “the expertise of other institutions, such as the Frist Center, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Tennessee State Museum, to structure exhibits and for educational outreach.”  Thus Fisk—and Nashville—would enjoy the benefits of Fisk’s collections without the university having to bear the burden of the exhibition.  Outlaw is a Fisk alumnus who serves as associate provost for undergraduate education at Vanderbilt University. But it is his role as chair of the museum’s storyline committee, which is charged with developing a program for just what the institution will exhibit, that he suggested the connection with Fisk. “MAAMAC will be an exhibiting institution, not a collecting institution,” Outlaw says. So it will have to form partnerships with people and organizations having collections to have something to display within its walls. “Fisk is a natural to play a significant role with MAAMAC because of not only its art holdings but its resources, its papers and special collections in music history and [African American] culture.”Boyd also sees the partnership as promising because it would mean content for the museum—and thus provide its fundraisers with a more concrete program to present to potential donors—while making “Fisk’s fine collections more available to the public, enhancing tourism. And it’s very important to keep the Stieglitz Collection in Nashville under the ownership of Fisk. That collection has historically been part of an African American institution, it’s benefited Fisk and should continue to do so.”Whether Fisk officials will see a partnership with the museum as sufficiently beneficial is an open question. The university needs a quick infusion of cash to retain its accreditation and  meet a Mellon Foundation challenge grant that provides Fisk with $1 million up front and another $2 million if the school raises $4 million by June 30. And in the slightly longer term, the university needs to replenish its endowment, which in past years has been raided to cover operating deficits. Fisk also wants seed money for a new science building, chairs in business, math and science, and scholarships. Under these circumstances, the university has viewed the Stieglitz Collection as a source of immediate revenue rather than an educational asset.Fisk has spent the past two years asking the Davidson County Chancery Court for the legal right to sell pieces of the Stieglitz Collection. The university first petitioned the court to sell two stars: Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Radiator Building—Night, New York” and Marsden Hartley’s “Painting No. 3.” The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, which represents the interests of O’Keeffe’s estate, challenged the university’s freedom to sell. The museum cited conditions laid out by O’Keeffe in letters to then-Fisk president Charles S. Johnson specifying that the collection “will be exhibited intact” and that the university “will not at anytime sell or exchange any of the objects in the Stieglitz Collection,” conditions to which Johnson readily agreed.Last June, Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that Fisk could not sell any of the artworks in the collection. Lyle’s reasoning was that O’Keeffe’s donation “was not given to Fisk to use as a source of revenue” to advance its general mission, but “to promote the study of art.” And since Fisk’s stated intention was to use the bulk of the tens of millions the two paintings could bring for purposes other than art education, the sale of any objects in the collection would not enhance the purpose of O’Keeffe’s bequest but would instead undermine it. Fisk then took a different approach. In August, the university received a proposal from Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton to purchase a 50 percent interest in the Stieglitz Collection for $30 million. The collection would remain intact and be exhibited half of the time at Fisk and the other half of the time at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which she is building in Bentonville, Ark. Fisk subsequently signed this joint ownership agreement.  Because Walton’s proposal also involves a sale, it thus requires Lyle to concur with this new modification to the conditions O’Keeffe imposed. But the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum isn’t going quietly into that good night. The museum is challenging the deal with Crystal Bridges for the same reasons that it challenged the sale of the two paintings—because the museum claims the deal violates O’Keeffe’s conditions. A hearing in Lyle’s court on the challenge is scheduled for Feb. 1.Fisk is contractually obligated to entertain no other offers for the Stieglitz Collection until the court rules on the Crystal Bridges deal. So Outlaw and Boyd say they have been unable to ascertain whether Fisk would be interested in a partnership with the museum. Their next step, as suggested in Outlaw’s letter to Boyd, is to explore the partnership’s “feasibility with those persons and offices that are already committed to and supportive of our museum project, including our Governor and Mayor, Congressman Cooper, Senator Alexander and others you deem appropriate.” Until these conversations take place, and Fisk extricates itself from its legal gumbo, we can only hope.

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