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Judge Approves Fisk/Crystal Bridges Deal, Restricts Use of Walton&#146s $30 Million

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Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle

In her latest astonishing Memorandum and Order, issued today, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that Fisk University can sell a half-share in its Stieglitz Collection to Alice Walton‘s planned Crystal Bridges Museum for $30 million. But what Lyle giveth with one hand, she taketh away with the other: The financially struggling university can use only $10 million of the windfall “for its viability.”

The remaining $20 million must be “removed from Fisk and used to endow a Nashville connection for the collection.” Income from that endowment, estimated by the judge at “$1 million or less each year,” would be paid to Fisk to maintain and display the collection. If the teetering university were to close, the money would stay with the collection, securing its future in Nashville.

This 35-page ruling would let Crystal Bridges get its hands on Fisk’s modernist American masterpieces (contrary to the no-sale stipulation made by the
collection’s donor, artist Georgia O’Keeffe), but would deny the university most of its desired “large infusion of cash,” without which, Fisk has repeatedly maintained, it “cannot continue to operate.” This is a lose-lose decision.

Over the Tennessee Attorney General’s vigorous objections, the judge has
allowed this violation of donor intent on the grounds that
Fisk needs money to survive and that “without Fisk, Nashville would
never have been the beneficiary of the Collection.” Hobbs Lyle believes that the $10 million is enough to keep the place afloat, while other funds are sought.

In its initial response to the ruling, the AG’s Office has stated:

We
are disappointed with the approval of the Stieglitz Collection’s sale
to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas contrary to the express wishes
of the donor….This is a lengthy and intricate opinion, which we will
continue to analyze as we review our options.

The AG has, over the course of this case, endorsed several Nashville-only solutions for the collection, the most recent being the establishment of a new endowment, to be funded by Fisk alumna Carol Creswell-Betsch, which would, in the AG’s words, “allow the art to be displayed on the Fisk campus full
time at no cost to the university.”

Fisk asserts that it needs much less (a mere $130,000 a year) to maintain its collection than the $1 million that might be generated by the court-mandated $20-million Crystal Bridges-funded endowment. What’s more, in a statement reponding to the latest ruling, the university revealed that some additional Walton largesse may be in the offing:

Alice Walton has agreed to fund an endowment of $1,000,000 which is to
be used for the support and maintenance of the Collection. Clearly, the
funds that will be produced from this endowment will generate many
times the amount actually needed to maintain the gallery, support the
Collection and provide for art education.

This reopening of Alice’s coffers suggests a new question: Might Walton decide to sweeten Fisk’s pot with additional funds to defray debts and support general operations, if the collection-sharing gambit, green-lighted by the court, goes through? And who, we wonder, is defraying the impecunious university’s legal bills through years of litigation?

Let the appeals begin! On second thought, let’s just forget the whole thing. Crystal Bridges’ unseemly megabucks collection-raiding campaign has dragged on way too long.

The Association of Art Museum Directors, which has publicly decried Fisk’s planned monetization of its collection, must immediately assert—not just to the university, over which it has little sway, but, more importantly, to the Arkansas museum’s
officials—that this deal violates professional museum guidelines. Any effort to induce another collecting institution to violate ethical standards is in itself a violation.

Furthermore, the association should unequivocally declare that if this deal goes through, any
application by Crystal Bridges’ director, Don Bacigalupi, to join the ranks of his colleagues at AAMD
will be dead on arrival.

an ArtsJournal blog