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Decision Confusion: AAMD’s Statement on Fisk/Stieglitz

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Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle

In its well-meaning Statement Regarding Stieglitz Collection at Fisk University, issued today, the Association of Art Museum Directors (like several journalistic commentators) has misconstrued last week’s ruling by the Davidson County Chancery Court regarding the university’s $30-million collection sharing deal with Alice Walton‘s planned Crystal Bridges Museum.

Here’s AAMD’s statement in full:

AAMD is gratified that the Chancery Court Judge has issued a ruling that recognizes the importance of the Stieglitz collection to Nashville and the South. In ruling that Fisk University may not pursue an agreement to sell a half share of the Stieglitz collection in ways that undermine the purpose of Ms. [Georgia] O’Keeffe’s gift [emphasis added], the Court affirms the importance of respecting donor intent.

AAMD believes that art collections owned by colleges and universities are an irreplaceable component of academic and community life and that they should not be treated as disposable financial assets. In support of the Court’s request that the Tennessee Attorney General propose alternative solutions for the management of the collection, several AAMD members have offered their help to identify options that will preserve the Stieglitz collection and uphold the standards of professional practice in the museum community.

The court, in fact, has not prohibited Fisk from pursuing the $30-million sale of a half-share of its collection—a transaction that would not just “undermine” but decimate O’Keeffe’s written no-sale stipulation. What the court did say in its 21-page decision is that it will not “approve the Crystal Bridges Agreement, as written [emphasis added].”

Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle, in her decision, indicated a preference for a Nashville-only remedy for Fisk’s inability to continue caring for and exhibiting the collection. But she added that if no viable local arrangement emerges by her Sept. 10 deadline, “the only available alternative is for the Court to attempt to rework the Crystal Bridges Agreement to more closely approximate Ms. O’Keeffe’s intent. Certainty and closure must be brought to this matter.”

On pages 13-15 of the above-linked decision, the judge clearly delineates the eight changes that she seeks in the Crystal Bridges deal, the first of which involves insuring that the Bentonville, AR, museum does not eventually acquire more than a half-share in the Stieglitz collection, by lending money to Fisk and “obtain[ing] a security interest in the debtor’s [Fisk’s] undivided 50% interest of the artwork.” She warns of the possibility that, if Fisk were to default on such loans, Crystal Bridges could eventually seize 100% ownership of the collection:

Over time, especially considering Fisk’s financial circumstances, Crystal Bridges could obtain much more or full title to all of the Stieglitz Collection. This result must be removed from any modified Joint Ownership Agreement.

Provided that her eight conditions are met and that no local solution for care of the collection is found, Judge Lyle indicates that she would allow Crystal Bridges’ $30-million purchase of a half-share of the collection to go forward.

What concerns me about the decision is that the ball has now been thrown in the Attorney General’s court: He’s been charged with finding a way to keep the collection in Nashville or risk losing it. But while AG Robert Cooper has encouraged local heroes to step forward, it’s not really part of his job description to go around to local donors and institutions, hat-in-hand, soliciting funds and exhibition space. Any rescue may have to be engineered by local patrons and institutions, perhaps with assistance from the city’s and/or the state’s executive branch (or even AAMD).

I hope that the Frist Center for the Visual Arts (or why not Vanderbilt University?) will step up as a new custodian. Frist, thus far, has refused to comment on the decision or its own possible future role.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Lyle’s 20-day clock is ticking and the Court of Appeals is waiting: That’s likely to be the next scene in this never-ending legal drama.

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