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Today’s Crystal Bridges/Fisk Collection-Sharing Trial Gets a Frist Twist

Susan Edwards, director of the Frist Center, Nashville

At 12:30 p.m. today, Round Four in the never-ending legal battle between Fisk University and Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper over the university’s Stieglitz Collection is scheduled for a return bout at its original venue, Davidson County Chancery Court, after detours to the Tennessee Court of Appeals and the state’s Supreme Court (which left standing the Court of Appeals ruling).

At issue is whether Fisk should be allowed to enter into a $30-million collection-sharing deal with Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR, despite written instructions by the collection’s donor, artist Georgia O’Keeffe (widow of photographer Alfred Stieglitz), that the university “not at any time sell or exchange any
of the objects.”

Notwithstanding all the legal lingo that’s been slung at this case in countless lawyers’ briefs, there’s a completely new and intriguing argument buried on P. 16 of the 22-page brief filed Monday in Davidson County Chancery Court by the Tennessee Attorney General’s office. [NOTE: For some reason, the above link for the AG’s brief is calling up a blank document, but if you click the “Download” button to the right on that screen, you can access the brief as either PDF or text.]

As CultureGrrl readers may remember, I had suggested back in February 2008 a possible remedy for Fisk’s inability or unwillingness to commit its own financial resources to maintaining the collection—a partnership with the Frist Center for the Visual Arts (which had previously stored the Stieglitz Collection for Fisk, until the the renovation of the university’s gallery was completed). Such an arrangement would keep the art in Nashville, easily accessible to Fisk students (for whose benefit it was intended) and perhaps also more accessible to the local community.

Now comes this surprise revelation from Attorney General Robert Cooper:

The donor’s intent…can be accomplished with the assistance of a new steward that can carry out the charitable intent. The proof will show, in fact, that another Nashville institution, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, met with Fisk in May 2008 [three months after I had planted the seed?] and suggested to Fisk that it would be willing to discuss displaying the Stieglitz Collection in space at the Center dedicated to Fisk.

A spokesperson for the AG’s office confirmed to me that this was the first time that the Frist was mentioned in the legal briefs. But neither the AG’s spokesperson nor Ellen Jones Pryor, the Frist’s communications director, would tell me anything more about the current status of discussions, if any. Pryor did emphasize that the Frist is “a non-collecting institution,” which I presume was intended to suggest that there would be no $30-million purchase of a half-share in the collection. One can speculate (although Ellen declined to comment) that the Frist’s resources and expertise might be available for the care and display of the collection, should a physical transfer of the 101 objects occur.

From Fisk’s point of view, of course, finding a local home for the collection is beside the point: The university says it needs a major cash infusion to help address its dire financial condition.

According to Fisk’s Aug. 9 trial brief

Fisk has become financially unstable and it is now in danger of having to suspend its operations.

This argument, should it become common knowledge, could backfire: A near-insolvency admission is not likely to boost student admissions.

In any event, both sides, at this writing, are packing up their briefcases and preparing to square off over whether it is “impossible or impracticable” for Fisk to adhere strictly to O’Keeffe’s instructions, and whether the $30-million Crystal Bridges deal is the solution that would “most closely approximate” donor O’Keeffe’s intent. Presiding will be Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle, the same judge who had issued the initial ruling in this case.

an ArtsJournal blog