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Fisk at Frist: AG Proposes “Temporary Arrrangement” for Stieglitz Collection

Fisk History Department Chair Reavis Mitchell says Stieglitz Collection is part of university’s “educational mission

The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, officially breaking its silence, has agreed to participate in a Nashville-only proposal, championed by the State Attorney General’s office, for the maintenance and display of Fisk University’s Stieglitz Collection at the Frist. The university hotly opposes this temporary relocation of its valuable collection, still hoping to monetize the art through a $30-million collection-sharing deal with Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR.

In its response to the AG’s proposal, Fisk fumes:

In an outrageous theft from Nashville’s oldest university, nothing would
be paid to Fisk for absolute control over the Collection.

The Nashville-only plan was set forth late last week in a 10-page proposal filed in Davidson County Chancery Court by Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper. As described in the AG’s press release issued on Friday, the plan, which needs court approval, “provides for the Tennessee Arts Commission to take temporary possession of the Alfred Stieglitz Art Collection from Fisk University and contract with Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts to maintain and display the collection.”

The AG’s press release further states:

The Collection would maintain a close relationship with Fisk and would continue to be known and identified as the “Alfred Stieglitz Collection at Fisk University.”…Under the agreement, Fisk students and
faculty would have additional access to the Collection for research and study….

Fisk University would be relieved of all costs associated with maintaining and
exhibiting the Collection and would not be charged for any work needed to preserve and display the
art. Fisk would have the right to ask that the Court return the art when Fisk is financially able to
maintain and display it.

This arrangement would honor donor Georgia O’Keeffe‘s expressed wishes and do justice to a celebrated collection that was under-utilized at Fisk (which, for a time, had placed the Stieglitz Collection in storage at the Frist). But the deal would leave Fisk without its coveted $30-million windfall from Crystal Bridges.

According to the most recent court decision in its never-ending legal battle for permission to do the deal with Crystal Bridges, Fisk now has until Oct. 8 to file its response to the AG’s proposal. Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle last month stated that if no viable Nashville-based plan for the
collection were advanced by the AG, she would consider a
revised Fisk/Crystal Bridges plan that more closely adheres to O’Keeffe’s written stipulations for the care and display of the Stieglitz Collection.

In Fisk’s above-linked response to the Nashville plan, President Hazel O’Leary implausibly suggested that only Walton’s money could keep Fisk solvent:

Nashville has a simple choice to make, and that is whether it is better
to keep the art in Nashville full time and have Fisk close or keep the
art in Nashville half the time and have Fisk survive. The State of Tennessee and
Metropolitan Nashville have decided that the art is more important than
Fisk. We believe that continuing the education of our students is more important….

This so-called partnership between the Frist Center, the State and the
Metropolitan Government is nothing more than the display of raw power in
an undisguised attempt to steal this art from its rightful owner.  We
will use every ounce of our energy to oppose this proposal.  This is a
shameful day in the history of Nashville.”

Under the AG’s proposal, the State of Tennessee would “pay for insurance and any remediation or restoration and upkeep of the art.” Subject to the approval of its board at its meeting tomorrow, the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency of
Nashville and Davidson County (MDHA), from which the Frist leases its
property, would provide up to $250,000 in funds to renovate part of the Frist for display of the Stieglitz Collection. According to the detailed terms of the agreement
among the state, the Frist and the MDHA, the Frist would assume all
costs of promoting and interpreting the collection, “including the
development of a Gallery Guide.”

It seems to me that any available government support for the Stieglitz Collection should be offered first to Fisk, subject to the condition that the art be properly displayed and maintained at the university where O’Keeffe had intended it to remain. If, as is likely, Fisk rejects that offer, I favor the Frist proposal as the best means to preserve the collection and the donor’s intent. If Chancellor Lyle rules in favor of the Frist arrangement, Fisk is likely to appeal the decision.

While breathlessly awaiting the next development in this riveting saga, you can review the AG’s key court filings in the protracted legal battle, here. More engagingly, you can view an array of artworks from the Stieglitz trove, along with an installation shot of the collection at Fisk’s Van Vechten Gallery, in the video trailer (embedded at the end of this post) for a half-hour television documentary—The Gift: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection at Fisk University. That show premiered last Wednesday on Nashville Public Television (to be rebroadcast on Sept. 20 at 9:30 p.m.).

At the end of the transcript for NPT’s program, Professor Reavis Mitchell, chairman of the history department at Fisk University, is quoted saying this:

I can’t imagine the display of the Stieglitz Collection without a Fisk University. It’s not separated. You can’t separate
it out. That’s been the intent of the benefactors. That’s been the intent of those who have been in charge of Fisk
University for the last 50 years since the collection has been here, and that remains a vocal and viable point of Fisk
and its art collections.

In the last of four extended interview video clips that are posted on the program’s website, Mitchell goes into more detail about the importance of the collection to Fisk:

This wonderful collection becomes a part of the educational experience of those whose ancestors had been enslaved for more than 300 years. [Fisk is a historically black university.]…It brings wonderful visitation to the campus….Our focus is to use this art and have this art available to our students and to all who would study art….It’s a part of that educational mission of Fisk….Without the art and without that collection, a portion of that would escape the student experience.

As part of the video trailer, you’ll see the university’s Stieglitz gallery bustling with visitors, notwithstanding several published reports that the collection averages only seven visitors a day. That figure (at odds with Mitchell’s comment about the collection’s “wonderful visitation”) is likely derived from this statement in one of Fisk’s court briefs:

Between Jan. 1, 2010 and July 21, 2010, approximately 945 persons signed the
registration book at the Van Vechten Gallery at Fisk as visitors to the Stieglitz Collection,
an average of less than seven persons per day.

Actually, if you do the math, it’s less than five persons per day. Perhaps they’re not counting some days on which the gallery is closed. (It’s open five days a week during the academic year; four during the summer.) What we don’t know is what percentage of visitors to the Stieglitz Collection actually sign its guestbook, and to what degree attendance is affected by the campus’ being relatively unpopulated during the summer vacation months of May, June and July—three of the six and a half months for which the guestbook signees were tallied.

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