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Fisk/Walton Saga: AAMD’s Admonitory Letter Sent to Wrong Recipient

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, construction photo, July 2010

[NOTE: This will be my last CultureGrrl post for about two and a half weeks. I’ll be fleeing halfway around the world to pry myself away from computers, e-mail and blogging!]

Fisk University on Friday filed in Davidson County Chancery Court its 92-page revised plan for a proposed $30-million sale of a half-share in its celebrated Stieglitz Collection to Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum, now under construction in Bentonville, AR. Fisk and Crystal Bridges have modified the terms of their agreement to “address the Court’s concerns,” according to the university’s brief. Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle will decide whether to approve the revised plan, after which both sides in the case—Fisk and the Tennessee Attorney General’s office—will have the option to file an appeal.

Just before that document hit the courthouse, the Association of Art Museum Director’s strongly worded letter, opposing the monetization of the collection, hit the desk of Fisk President Hazel O’Leary.

Here’s an excerpt from AAMD’s stern missive:

Supporting operations through the sale of works of art fundamentally undermines the core role of the arts in education and the integrity of an educational institution. Most museum and university art collections are built through gifts or financial contributions designated for purchasing works of art.

If donors believe such gifts may be converted at any time to support other purposes, such as operations, donors will be reluctant to make these gifts in the future—not only to Fisk, but to any art museum. In the end, the publics we serve will be the ultimate victims of this virtually inevitable result. Preserving public trust is critical to all nonprofit institutions.

Treating art as a fungible asset and using collections to pay for daily expenses will also significantly undermine future fundraising for operations. If a museum or university can meet its operating needs by selling art, why bother giving money when there are so many other nonprofits facing severe financial challenges?

The association helpfully offered to meet with O’Leary, “to explore constructive alternative solutions that will preserve both the Stieglitz Collection and the University’s longstanding commitment to excellence in education.”

Good luck with that. What AAMD willfully ignores in its well-reasoned, oft-repeated arguments is that, from O’Leary’s standpoint, they’re completely beside the point: The university wants to get its hands on some desperately needed cash. Winning the approval of a group of art museum directors is way down on its list of priorities.

AAMD has no leverage over Fisk University. The targets to whom it should be addressing its concerns—backing up strong words with a threat of sanctions—are Crystal Bridges’ founder, Walton, and her museum’s director, Don Bacigalupi. In a CultureGrrl interview after his appointment, Bacigalupi acknowledged that eventual membership in the Association of Art Museum Directors was, indeed, his objective. He would work towards that goal, he said, through “relationship-building and reputation-building,” developed through “collegial and collaborative programs.”

If AAMD is truly serious about using its influence against Crystal Bridges’ sabotaging of donor intent and its inducement of Fisk to monetize its artistic assets, then it should go after the institution that actually does care about being accepted into the fellowship of would-be colleagues. The carrot is developing the “collegial and collaborative programs” that Bacigalupi says he desires. The stick is recommending that AAMD’s members withhold professional cooperation and loans from a megabucks institution that (as I previously wrote in the Wall Street Journal) “swoop[s] down and seize[s] tasty masterpieces from weak hands.”

In this protracted saga, it’s getting late in the season to start playing hardball. But perhaps it’s not too late.

For further details about the revised Fisk-Crystal Bridges proposal (which, due to my frenzied travel preparations, I have not yet had time to read in full), see Fisk’s statement. If you’ve got more time than I do, click the link to the complete text of the brief at the top of this post.

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