an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Frisking Fisk: Parsing O’Keeffe’s Angry Letter, and What Should Happen Next

I’ve now had a chance to peruse Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle‘s Feb. 8 “Memorandum and Order” in the Fisk University Stieglitz Collection case, in which she barred any sales from the collection. It’s clear that the judge based her decision on the very principle—donor intent—that Alice Walton unconvincingly tried to appropriate in her campaign to purchase a half-share in the collection for her planned Crystal Bridges Museum.
The judge relied on various communications between Fisk and the donor, Georgia O’Keeffe (which I discussed here, in my Wall Street Journal article on Walton) to reach her conclusion that the artist had been opposed to any sales.
A document that particularly seemed to influence Chancellor Lyle was a 1951 letter from O’Keeffe to Charles Johnson, then Fisk’s president, which said the following:
Would you consider letting me withdraw the Collection? You do not seem to have anyone to take care of it or utilize it and you have written me nothing about air conditioning or controlling dust and humidity. I saw the amount of dirt that settles down on a tabletop in the rooms overnight, and with your humidity and changes of temperature it will soon be the ruination of the pictures. May I hear from you about this?…
If you find the Collection too much of a problem and wish to consider giving it up, let me know so that I can plan what to do with it next.

From this, Chancellor Lyle concluded that “O’Keeffe did not intend to give Fisk the right to dispose of the Stieglitz Collection,” but would have handled any disposition herself. This would appear to bolster the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s argument that as the successor-in-interest to O’Keeffe’s estate, it should gain control of the collection if Fisk were unable to care for it properly. That’s the issue to be considered at the upcoming trial, Feb. 19.
My suggestion to Fisk, if it doesn’t want to the collection to be removed from Nashville to Santa Fe, is that it abandon any thought of mounting a futile appeal of Friday’s ruling against sales and focus instead on demonstrating its ability to properly care for and display the collection.
If that means partnering with another local institution, so be it. But I suggest a good choice for this might be the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, rather than the proposed new institution—the Museum of African American Music, Art and Culture—that recently made an amorphous bid for partnership.
As for the monetization of the collection to help keep the financially shaky university afloat, the judge was unequivocally opposed:
[O’Keeffe] wanted the Collection to reside and be displayed at Fisk to make a social statement [about African-American identity]. She had no personal connection to Fisk from which one could conclude that she had an intent to have the Collection used to keep Fisk in operation. Joint ownership with Crystal Bridges ‘unlawfully dilutes’ these predominate intentions that motivated the gift to Fisk.

an ArtsJournal blog