Wal-Mart Radiator 

A new wrinkle arises in Fisk’s efforts to unload precious art, but what emerges from the legal gumbo is still anyone’s guess

The savior of Fisk University’s Stieglitz Collection may be the folks who bring you super big boxes chock full of discount prices.
The savior of Fisk University’s Stieglitz Collection may be the folks who bring you super big boxes chock full of discount prices. In an Aug. 24 letter to Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper, Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton has offered to purchase “a 50 percent undivided interest in the Collection for $30 million.”

Walton proposes a joint ownership agreement in which the collection would remain “intact and continue to be known in perpetuity as the Alfred Stieglitz Collection.” The art would be exhibited to the public 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. Such an arrangement, Walton writes, “would not only keep this historically important collection intact and available to the public, but it would double (at least) the funds available to Fisk University to support its continuing interest in the Collection and its educational mission.”

The sticking point is the settlement agreement proposed earlier this month by the university and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which had been battling over the collection’s future and are scheduled to meet in Davidson County Chancery Court on Sept. 6. Because Fisk is contractually bound by this prior agreement, the university could enter into negotiations with Walton only if Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle disapproves this settlement, whose provisions are not as favorable to Fisk or to the collection as what Walton proposes.

In its settlement with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Fisk would sell the famed “Radiator” painting to the museum for $7.5 million, roughly one-third of its market value, and the museum would lend the painting back to Fisk for four months every four years. The museum would furnish Fisk with “a high quality reproduction…to be displayed with the Collection when the original ‘Radiator Building’ is not at Fisk.” And the museum would waive any objection to Fisk’s sale of another painting in the Stieglitz Collection, “Painting No. 3” by Marsden Hartley, estimated to be worth approximately $20 million on the open market.

Fisk has spent the past year-and-a-half seeking the legal right to sell the O’Keeffe and Hartley paintings to pull itself out of financial free fall. O’Keeffe assigned both paintings to Fisk—along with 99 other works—in 1949, when she was settling the estate of her late husband, the famed photographer and collector Alfred Stieglitz.

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which represents the interests of O’Keeffe’s estate, challenged the university’s freedom to sell, citing correspondence between O’Keeffe and then-Fisk president Charles S. Johnson. In the letters, O’Keeffe specifies that the collection “will be exhibited intact” and that the university “will not at any time sell or exchange any of the objects in the Stieglitz Collection,” conditions to which Johnson agreed.

In June, Chancellor Lyle ruled in favor of the museum and enjoined Fisk from selling any works from the Stieglitz Collection. Herded into a legal corner by the O’Keeffe Museum, Fisk agreed to settle.

The university is willing to sell “Radiator” for cheap to get many more millions for the Hartley because it has little time and few options. Fisk’s reaccreditation review by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) is looming in 2009. And that has Fisk officials worried. In an email sent to the “Fisk family” just after the settlement agreement was announced this month, President Hazel O’Leary wrote that “without an infusion of at least $27 million by June 2008, Fisk cannot demonstrate the financial stability to avoid possible sanctions” by SACS, according to a member of the “family” who received the email. Fisk spokesman Ken West confirms the need for cash to achieve reaccreditation. Without it, sanctions could put a serious crimp in admissions recruiting and fund raising.

The legal rationale Fisk and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum offered for their settlement sounds straightforward enough. Georgia O’Keeffe, were she alive, could waive the conditions she imposed with her gift. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is the successor to her interests. The museum, therefore, can also waive the “no sale” condition. The fact is, however, that neither Fisk nor the museum—nor the attorney general, who by law supervises gifts to Tennesseans—has the authority to modify the conditions of O’Keeffe’s charitable gift. Only the court can do this, which is why the settlement is before Chancellor Lyle.

It seems illogical to expect Lyle to approve the settlement between Fisk and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, given that she’s already rejected Fisk’s proposal to sell the two paintings to meet general financial needs. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s position in the settlement carries a further illogicality—not to mention hypocrisy. The museum went to court in the first place for the stated purpose of enforcing all the conditions O’Keeffe imposed with her gift. But to get “Radiator” for its own collection, the museum is willing to do a Gilda Radner and say, “Never mind.”

Walton’s proposal also involves a sale and thus requires Lyle to concur with a modification of the conditions O’Keeffe imposed. But in this scenario, the Stieglitz Collection remains intact and thus closer to O’Keeffe’s vision. The artist personally assembled the pieces in the collection and stipulated that they be exhibited together so that anyone who walked through the gallery door could see modern art as Stieglitz did. Whether O’Keeffe would care if the door is in Nashville or Bentonville is anybody’s guess.

Walton has ambitious plans for her Crystal Bridges Museum. She has retained noted architect Moshe Safdie to design the 100,000-square-foot building, scheduled to open in 2009. The 100-acre site, which will feature outdoor performance space, a sculpture garden and hiking trails, is in the small town in northwest Arkansas where Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton got his start in retail. And she is scrambling to assemble a collection of American art from the colonial to the modern era to display in the structure. This is no easy task when so many works by American masters are already within museum walls.

Last year, Walton partnered with the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to purchase “The Gross Clinic” by Thomas Eakins for $68 million from Thomas Jefferson University, a medical and health science school in Philadelphia. The sale did not go through when the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts raised matching funds to keep the masterwork of 19th century American realism in the City of Brotherly Love. Walton had to settle for a smaller and lesser known Eakins from Thomas Jefferson University as a consolation prize.

In securing the Stieglitz Collection for Crystal Bridges, Walton would increase her museum’s holdings—if only half-time—exponentially. The 101 works, which would be impossible to assemble for such a sum on the open market, serve as a primer of American modernism and would be a major asset to the most hallowed of art halls. But the Stieglitz Collection isn’t on the open market; it’s tied up in court. And in what form the collection emerges from this legal gumbo is still to be determined.

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