Georgia on My Mind

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Tyler Green’s blog has a posting this morning about the impending (and depressing) sale by Fisk University of two important canvases from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, which Stieglitz’s widow Georgia O’Keeffe donated to the school in 1949, three years after his death. You can also read more about the complicated case here.

One of the paintings is an important O’Keeffe, Radiator Building — Night, New York. Under a deal approved by the Tennessee state attorney general, it will be purchased by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe for $7 million unless Fisk is able to come up within 30 days with a plan for keeping it on campus, perhaps by having donors buy the painting from Fisk but then lend it back permanently to the school. The other canvas, Marsden Hartley’s Painting No. 3, would go on the open market.

Radiator Building — Night, New York/Georgia O’Keeffe — Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Fisk University.

Fisk says it must do the sales to raise money to replenish its depleted endowment, and also to renovate the Carl Van Vechten Gallery where the collection is displayed. (Years after depositing the Stieglitz collection with Fisk, O’Keeffe herself regretted that she had not included a fund for upkeep and restoration.) I sympathize with Fisk’s financial problems but for universities to treat their art collections as piggy banks is a bad idea, especially schools like Fisk that offer art history degrees and need real, tangible works of art on campus.

This isn’t going to be the last of this kind of story. In this case it was Fisk that took it upon itself to offer the two paintings for sale, but in this very hot market small college and university collections are especially vulnerable to being sounded out by wealthy institutions on shopping sprees. How much would you bet that Alice Walton has people on her payroll whose only job is to do web searches all day with the phrase “financially strapped college”?