Fisk University’s efforts over the past year-and-a-half to sell off part of its Stieglitz Collection have been, well, bizarre. Chalk it up to dire financial straits (the university has been draining its endowment for decades just to pay the bills) or to the pressures of academia (Fisk is up for accreditation review in 2009).
But last week, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle’s decision to strike down the latest settlement offer between Fisk and the Santa Fe-based Georgia O’Keeffe Museum finally seemed to infuse a little sanity in this case.
In the latest proposed settlement, the university offered to sell O’Keeffe’s famed “Radiator Building—Night, New York” to the museum for the fire-sale price of $7.5 million (about one-third of its market value). In exchange, the museum would allow Fisk to sell another valuable Stieglitz painting (Marsden Hartley’s “Painting No. 3”) on the open market, and it agreed to lend “Radiator” to Fisk for four months every four years.
Lyle rejected the settlement, probably because it seemed like a case of déjà vu: a few months ago she struck down a similar agreement, a deal that state Attorney General Bob Cooper said would “represent both an artistic and a financial loss for Fisk.”
Now (speaking of déjà vu) enter Saul Cohen. The chairman of the board at the O’Keeffe Museum, Cohen says it’s clear that a recent offer from Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton muddled his museum’s latest attempt to get a deal.
In an effort to beef up her collection at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., Walton offered to pay $30 million for a 50 percent share in the collection, which would remain intact and be shipped back and forth from Fisk to Bentonville (“Wal-Mart Radiator,” Aug. 30, 2007).
Walton’s offer has Fisk a little giddy. In fact, Fisk president Hazel O’Leary told local media that it “would be an understatement” to say Fisk was happy about Walton’s offer. But O’Leary’s permagrin isn’t exactly contagious.
Just when we think the case to unload “Radiator” is starting to make sense, Cohen tells the Scene that somewhere, up in the heavens, O’Keeffe is probably pretty ticked off about Lyle’s ruling. “I think if you could hold a séance and communicate with Georgia O’Keeffe, she would say, ‘I think that the settlement makes sense,’ ” Cohen says.
He says O’Keeffe’s exact words probably would go something like this: “ ‘I’d love to see my painting [“Radiator”] being properly cared for at my museum [in Santa Fe] with the rest of the collection staying at Fisk and being taken care of.’ ”
Sure, the museum’s settlement would’ve trampled on O’Keeffe’s intent to keep the collection intact. After all, she went to great lengths to assemble the 101 works in the collection—which she gave to the university in 1949 following the death of her photographer husband Alfred Stieglitz—and to make sure that they were displayed together.
But Cohen says Fisk and the museum made the best of an unfortunate situation. “Sure, it would’ve been nice if the whole collection could be preserved and Fisk had no financial problems, but in the real world, things don’t work like that,” he says.
In the real world, the Stieglitz deal is moving on without Cohen—at least for now. Fisk attorney Michael Norton says the Fisk folks are in talks with Crystal Bridges officials to work out the details. Neither party will comment on the deal, but Norton says Walton’s position at least honors O’Keeffe’s wish that the works in the collection remain together.
Lyle is doing her part to help the process along. To make the partnership with Crystal Bridges a reality, Fisk again will be required to appear before Lyle. In what seems to be a move to give the university and Walton time to make the deal happen, Norton says Lyle won’t issue a final order about whether Fisk can sell the art until Nov. 2.
Yet Cohen is unwilling to let his deal remain, in his word, “dead” for long. Indeed, he still has hopes of reviving the settlement unaltered. “We are open to any sensible solution, and we thought we had that,” Cohen says. “If I could wave a magic wand and achieve something, the settlement would be it.”
And if Fisk comes to court armed with a deal to sell the Stieglitz Collection to Crystal Bridges? Cohen says the O’Keeffe Museum may once again enter the battle to try to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Cohen, however, may have trouble selling Fisk and the judge on the merits of his settlement. Unless, of course, he can convince Lyle, O’Leary and the Wal-Mart heiress to dim the courtroom lights and lay hands on the old Ouija board, and in the process channel O’Keeffe. Otherwise, Cohen’s crusade may well end up being, like O’Keeffe herself, truly dead.
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