Fisk momentarily comes out on top in the latest Stieglitz Collection skirmish 

The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw

On Tuesday, a week of sudden twists, bitter debate and searing rhetoric over the fate of Fisk University's Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art came to an abrupt end in Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle's courtroom. The legal war between Fisk and Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper may have come no closer to settlement, but the embattled university can (and did) claim a tentative victory.

The latest skirmish began last Friday. Challenged by Lyle to put forward a plan that would keep the collection in Nashville, Cooper proposed that the Tennessee Arts Commission take temporary custody of the 101 artworks. The commission would contract with the Frist Center for the Visual Arts for their maintenance and display.

"Fisk would have the right to ask that the Court return the art when Fisk is financially able to maintain and display it," according to a statement by the attorney general.

The reaction by Fisk officials was pyrotechnic. In a press release, President Hazel O'Leary decried the plan as "an undisguised attempt to steal this art from its rightful owner" and "a shameful day in the history of Nashville." On Monday night, the university shifted from the legal to the political arena, inviting news cameras to Fisk Memorial Chapel as a student prayer vigil protested the attorney general's "unprecedented grab for power."

The effect of Fisk's pre-emptive appeal to the court of public opinion isn't clear. But the next day, Lyle seemed to have been swayed by the university's argument that its entire future rests on being able to sell a massive stake in the $74 million collection. Side-stepping the elephant in the gallery — the likelihood that placing the cultural treasures of a historically black university under white oversight would touch off accusations of municipally endorsed paternalism — she rejected Cooper's proposal as a temporary fix to a situation that needs a permanent solution.

More importantly to Fisk, she kept alive the hope of a deal with the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark., which in 2007 offered $30 million to the cash-strapped university for a half-interest in the collection. In her ruling Tuesday, Lyle charged Fisk to produce a revised version of its agreement with Crystal Bridges, demanding that it remove provisions that could have divested the university of its more than 50 percent interest in the collection. Fisk has until Oct. 8 to put forth a revision, and Cooper will have until Oct. 22 to respond.

Fisk needs the court's permission for the deal due to a "no-sale" condition imposed by artist Georgia O'Keeffe in 1949. That was the year she donated the art to Fisk from the estate of her late husband, the famed photographer and collector Alfred Stieglitz. Courts can modify gift conditions found to be impossible or impractical to comply with due to changing circumstances, such as financial inadequacy. According to legal precedent, however, the modification must carry out the donor's intent as closely as possible.

In August, Chancellor Lyle agreed with Fisk that its chronic shortfalls — regularly $2 million per year — make it impractical for the school to exhibit and care for the Stieglitz Collection. ("See "The Art of the Deal," Aug. 26.) Fisk spends an average of $131,000 annually on the artworks.

But in that same ruling, Lyle found that certain provisions in the 2007 Crystal Bridges agreement "override, thwart and dilute the purpose for which Ms. O'Keeffe made the gift." O'Keeffe's purpose, as established by the Tennessee Court of Appeals in 2009, was "to enable the public — in Nashville and the South — to have the opportunity to study the Collection in order to promote the general study of art."

With that in mind, Lyle insisted on Tuesday that the Crystal Bridges agreement include a definite schedule for the collection to reside half time in Bentonville and half time in Nashville. Furthermore, any future disputes over the collection would be resolved in Davidson County Chancery Court, not by outside mediators.

"Having the Collection in Nashville only half of the time and reducing Fisk's ownership to half is not a perfect solution," Lyle stated, "but it does keep Fisk afloat, thereby maintaining and holding true to the law's recognition of the donor's deliberate selection of Fisk for the art."

The university has repeatedly claimed in court that, without a significant infusion of cash, the school is likely to close its doors — and the only way to raise the needed funds is by monetizing the collection. Cooper has disputed this claim, pointing out in court that Fisk is still in business and still accredited, despite numerous claims of imminent closure and loss of accreditation if the university could not convert the art into a substantial windfall.

But Lyle's ruling seems to side with the university's argument, put forth by O'Leary last week in blunt life-or-death terms. "Nashville has a simple choice to make," O'Leary said, "and that is whether it is better to keep the art in Nashville full time and have Fisk close or keep the art in Nashville half the time and have Fisk survive. The State of Tennessee and Metropolitan Nashville have decided that the art is more important than Fisk."

Whether the $30 million would be sufficient to do more than keep Fisk afloat for the near future is an open question.

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