The Latest on Fisk and That O’Keeffe

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Back to the drawing board. Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper has rejected the proposed deal between Fisk University in Nashville and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe that would have opened the way for the sale of the O’Keeffe painting Radiator Building. The deal would have allowed Fisk to sell the painting, part of the Stieglitz Collection bequeathed by O’Keeffe to the school in 1949 — but only if the financially strapped Fisk sold it to the O’Keeffe Museum for a very lowball $7 million. Otherwise the Museum would sue Fisk to block sale to any other party, which it says is a violation of the terms of O’Keefe’s bequest to the school. The deal also would have permitted Fisk to sell another canvas from the collection, a Marsden Hartley, on the open market.

The A-G rejected the deal because of the plain distance between what the O’Keeffe Museum would pay for the painting and its presumed market value. A press release from the A-G’s office discloses that Fisk has been offered as much as $25 million for the painting from other individuals and institutions.

What’s next? O’Keeffe Museum President Saul Cohen told me yesterday, before Cooper’s office issued his decision, that if the deal was rejected the Museum would seek to pursue its suit. But when I spoke earlier today with Fisk President Hazel O’Leary, shortly after the A-G’s decision was announced, she told me that lawyers for Fisk and the O’Keeffe Museum will meet in conference in late April with the Chancery Court judge hearing the O’Keeffe Museum suit to see if a deal can be reached.

One solution that the A-G’s office hints at. Keep the O’Keeffe at Fisk but sell the Hartley on the open market, where it, too, would fetch millions, though nothing like what the O’Keeffe would go for. Jock Reynolds, Director of the Yale Art Gallery, who curated a show some years ago of art treasures from historically black colleges — Fisk is one — suggested another idea to me today for how Fisk could capitalize on the Stieglitz collection without dismantling it. Why not seek a partnership deal with a wealthy museum — like maybe Alice Walton’s forthcoming Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark. — that might bring revenue to Fisk and still permit the collection to return to the campus every other year or so?

At the very least, the rejection of the O’Keeffe Museum deal means there’s time now for some, as we say in the artworld, creative thinking.