Georgia on My Mind

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Radiator Building, Night — New York, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1927 /ALFRED STIEGLITZ COLLECTION, FISK UNIVERSITY

It’s (almost) happy ending time in the fight between Fisk University and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum over the Alfred Stieglitz Collection. Yesterday a Tennessee judge ruled that Fisk could keep the collection but could not sell any of it, as the struggling school had attempted to do. You can get the full story from Jonathan Marx in The Tennessean.

After the cash strapped Fisk attempted to sell paintings from the collection, which O’Keeffe had bequeathed to Fisk three years after Stieglitz’s death in 1946, the Museum, which represents the O’Keeffe estate, went to court attempting to reclaim the entire collection on the grounds that Fisk had breached the terms of O’Keeffe’s gift. In her decision, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle agreed that Fisk had violated O’Keeffe’s wishes but ruled that “the circumstances do not yet justify removing the Collection from Fisk.”

But here’s the catch. The judge also gave the school until Oct. 6 to renovate the Carl Van Vechten Gallery where the collection is usually displayed and return the collection to public view there — or forfeit it to the O’Keeffe Museum, which is in Santa Fe. Because of physical problems at the gallery, a converted 19th-century church that also once served as Fisk’s gym, the Stieglitz Collection has been in storage since November 2005. Fisk’s failure to exhibit the work for almost three years was one of the complaints brought by the O’Keeffe Museum.

There’s plenty of blame to go around in this mess. Fisk should never have attempted to sell off part of its collection in the first place. That provided the opening for the O’Keeffe Museum to step in to block the sale, but then to make a cynical offer to drop its objections if Fisk would sell it the jewel in the crown of Fisk’s collection, O’Keeffe’s pivotal Radiator Building — Night, New York — for just $7 million, a fraction of what the painting would bring on the open market. The attorney general of Tennessee stepped in to block that deal for failing to serve the interests of the state’s people.

Fisk isn’t crying wolf about its finances. As a cost cutting measure last month the school dropped its entire intercollegiate athletic program. The judge’s decision is still a good one. When the school gets back on its feet, it can restore its sports program. If the art were sold, it would be gone for good, a loss to both Fisk students and to the wider Nashville community that also gets to visit the collection — when it’s on display. With a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the pledge of $2 million more if the school can raise $4 million by June 30, Fisk may be on the way to recovery. And when it gets there, it will still have a collection that should never have been put in play in the first place.