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Fisk-Walton News Flash: Appeals Court Decision Puts Collection-Sharing Deal Back in Play


Fisk University’s exultant press release, summarizing yesterday’s 19-page decision by the Tennessee Court of Appeals that keeps alive the university’s hope to monetize its Stieglitz Collection, misleadingly suggests that the proposed collection-sharing arrangement with Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum is nearly a done deal:

Fisk University announced today that the Tennessee Court of Appeals had ruled in its favor and had reversed a decision of the Davidson County Chancery Court, which had prevented the sale of a one-half interest in its famous Stieglitz Art Collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, for $30 million.
The Appellate Court found in Fisk’s favor on all counts.

Maybe so. But while some obstacles to the deal are now removed (unless the decision is appealed by the O’Keeffe Museum), still unresolved (and being sent back to the lower court) is The Big Question:

Does Fisk have the legal right to sell a half-share in its collection to Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum?

The good news for Fisk is that Appeals Court Judge Frank Clement Jr. (reversing the decision of Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle) has ruled that the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, “lacks standing to participate” in the case and should get out of Fisk’s way. That museum, characterizing itself as “successor in interest” to the artist (who had donated the 101-work Stieglitz Collection to Fisk), had argued that if financial circumstances had made it impossible for the university to comply with the conditions of O’Keeffe’s donation, the artworks should be handed over to the museum. Georgia O’Keeffe had stipulated that the collection should be displayed intact and that nothing could be sold.

But the judge ruled that O’Keeffe had relinquished any rights to have the collection returned to her when she had donated it, and that any rights that she might have had to the 97 Fisk works from Alfred Stieglitz‘s bequest (four other works came from O’Keeffe herself) ended at the time of her death. That’s because Stieglitz had specified that his property was being bequeathed to her “for the duration of her life” (a “life estate,” in legal parlance). Therefore, the supposed “successor in interest,” the O’Keeffe Museum, had no interest to defend.

The judge also found that Stieglitz and/or O’Keeffe, in donating the collection, had a “general charitable intent” (to promote the study of art and make the collection available in Nashville and the South), not a “specific intent” limited to the arrangement with Fisk. A finding of general intent is a legal prerequisite for considering whether Fisk may be permitted to deviate from O’Keeffe’s no-sale stipulation. For a deviation to be allowed, the lower court, to which the case now returns, must be convinced that strictly complying with O’Keeffe’s conditions for her gift has (due to Fisk’s serious financial difficulties) become impracticable or impossible.

I have not yet received a response to my question to O’Keeffe Museum about whether it intends to appeal. As for Robert Cooper Jr., Tennessee’s Attorney General, he’s ready for the next battle. Here’s the AG’s statement:

The Court of Appeals has ruled that this matter should proceed to a hearing in the trial court absent the participation of the O’Keeffe Museum. We agree with this conclusion. This Office will continue to be vigorously engaged in this litigation to protect the interests of the community in the Stieglitz Collection, which is an invaluable and irreplaceable artistic and historic heritage.

Cooper has previously stated that he regards as “problematic” the university’s “aggressive claim seeking permission to sell a half-interest in the collection.” In his brief to the Court of Appeals, he had argued:

Even if the court found that…Fisk’s financial condition rendered
compliance with the gift’s restrictions impracticable or impossible,
the court would still have great discretion of which conditions should
be amended to address such findings. Such relief would not necessarily
include, and would likely fall short of [emphasis added], a sale of the Collection….

Cooper had also stated, in a letter to Walton, that he “repeatedly expressed the desire for a proposal to emerge that would allow the Stieglitz Collection to remain in Nashville on a full-time basis.”

But wait a minute! Remember Chancellor Lyle’s order that the university’s Van Vechten Gallery would have to be reopened by last October, removing the Stieglitz Collection from storage and putting it back on display? It was shown, for a while. But here’s what I just discovered, on the gallery’s webpage:

The Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery is closed for the final stages of previously scheduled renovations and enhancements.
The Van Vechten Gallery will reopen August 1, 2009.
Thank you for your continued [but discontinuous] patronage.

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