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Crystal Bridges’ Director on Fisk Art-Sale Controversy: “We don’t need that collection.”

Don Bacigalupi, executive director, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, on last week’s hardhat tour with journalists

I had one of those astonishing did-he-really-say-that moments in my half-hour conversation last week with Don Bacigalupi, executive director of Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. We chatted during my visit to the in-construction facility in Bentonville, AR. The transcript of part of our discussion is posted below.

The most startling moment of our exchange was Bacigalupi’s revelation that the Arkansas museum no longer craves the collection that has launched a thousand legal briefs. Those briefs are flying yet again, in preparation for as-yet-unscheduled oral arguments [UPDATE: scheduled for June 28] in Tennessee’s Court of Appeals, regarding the museum’s proposal to purchase a $30-million half-share in Fisk University’s Stieglitz Collection. (Fisk’s latest brief is here; the state attorney general’s is here. Fisk has until May 23 to file a response to the AG’s brief.)

Both sides, for different reasons, are asking the Court of Appeals to overturn this ruling
by the Davidson County Chancery Court, which approved the
collection-sharing arrangement, subject to serious restrictions on Fisk’s use of the windfall: $20 million would have to be used “to endow a Nashville connection for the [Stieglitz] collection”; only $10 million could be used for general university purposes. Fisk wants the money to help solve its serious financial problems.

There’s now a new player in the courtroom: An amici curiae brief has just been filed by a group calling itself the Task Force for the Rescue and
Restoration of Fisk University. They oppose the sale on two grounds:
Fisk’s “current finances…are much improved” (thereby obviating the
need to monetize the collection); and the disregard of donor Georgia O’Keeffe‘s written stipulations
for the collection would “discourage future donations” to Fisk and to
other museums and charitable and educational institutions.

The most prominent of the 13-members in the amici group is Lucius Outlaw Jr., professor of philosophy and of Africana and
diaspora studies, and associate provost for
undergraduate education at Vanderbilt University (located, like Fisk, in Nashville). Outlaw previously taught at Fisk.

Bacigalupi’s words speak for themselves, requiring little commentary from me, although I’ll interject a few links and italicized remarks within brackets. (I’m the “Q”; he’s the “A.”):

Q: You mentioned [to the visiting journalists over lunch] that you are going to be following professional best practices and guidelines,which are approved and accredited in the industry. In the Fisk matter that’s pending right now, AAMD made a comment [criticizing the monetization of the collection]. It wasn’t directed at you; it was directed at Fisk.

A: You made the comment directed at me, as I recall. I thought, “What is she doing? Does she want me ousted from my professional organization?”

Q: The point is that AAMD was directing its comment at Fisk, over which it has no leverage. And the place where it does have leverage is the place that desires membership in AAMD. My question is: How do you justify in your mind being the other side of a transaction that has been condemned by the leading professional organization in your field?

A: Parse your words carefully. It’s been condemned strictly for the use of the funds. We have nothing to do or to say about that.

Q: But you’re enabling it.

A: I don’t know that you can say that. If I buy something from you and I give you a dollar, do I have the right to tell you what to do with the dollar? I mean, really! [Then again, if one disapproves of the purpose for which the seller will be use that dollar, one can decline to participate in the transaction.]

We’re not even in the same industry: The university is one thing, and subscribes to a set of guidelines that are accreditable within their field; the museum subscribes to another. [Actually, the professional guidelines for art disposals by independent and university museums are strikingly similar.] If it were the reverse, and we were receiving the funds and we were doing something else to the funds, of course AAMD would have the right to talk to us and censure us and do whatever they wanted to.

I’ve looked at this every different way. When I came to this job, I inherited this contract. And it IS a contract. That’s why your comment was very difficult to absorb, because I can’t do anything about a legal contract. That’s absurd in a way, to blame me for a contract that already exists.

Q: The contract is not in effect yet.

A: The contract IS in effect. Pending the legal outcome, it is in effect and you can do nothing to change it while it is in litigation. And we’re not a party to the litigation, so we have no effect on the litigation whatsoever. We’re innocently standing by, awaiting the judge’s outcome.

You’ve asked me and others have asked me, “Would I enter into that contract?” I don’t know. The circumstances were very different at the time. At this time in the life cycle of this museum, would we be pursuing that collection? Probably not. We don’t really need that collection in the way I think it was perceived we needed that collection four or five years ago. [Emphasis added.]

The times have changed. The institution has evolved and grown, so it’s fully a different experience. I’ve looked at every aspect of this and Kaywin Feldman [the president of AAMD] and I have had many conversations about it, as I have also had with Janet Landay [AAMD’s former executive director] and Chris Anagnos [its current executive director]. I think they absolutely understand it from a colleague’s perspective, from where I sit. Even though their public statement has been directed at Fisk, there’s no institutional blame here.

I reacted so strongly to your comment about us being enablers because I don’t think that’s true at all and the impetus for entering into the discussion was to help save Fisk because I think it’s a travesty to think about standing idly by while Fisk, the most historic black university in the country, goes bankrupt. And that was absolutely Alice’s goal in entering into any discussion.

Q: If Alice really felt that way, she could give them the $30 million!

A: She HAS given them. She has made pledges to the university.

Q: I thought it was $1 million. [This is revealed in the court papers.]

A: Have YOU given a million dollars to Fisk University? Has anybody else?

Q: I wish I could!

A: Her care runs deep for that university and she believes that it would be a disaster to have that university go bankrupt. I think the way she went about it was right-headed. It was with the best of intentions, and it’s been construed in every other way.

How did the initial contact [between Walton and Fisk] work?

A: As I recall, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum entered into a relationship with Fisk to buy [Georgia O’Keeffe’s] “Radiator Building” and she [Walton] went to the attorney general and said, “This is not a fair price. They’re giving that painting away.”

And as a donor, she was offended by the idea that O’Keeffe’s wishes were being so brutalized that they were selling paintings, one-off, out of the collection, rather than trying to preserve the integrity of the collection, which the Crystal Bridges agreement does do: It preserves the integrity. It keeps the collection, in its entirety, together at Fisk and at Crystal Bridges.

Keeping the collection’s “integrity” would mean (under the revised schedule for collection-sharing, set forth on p. 13 of Fisk’s latest brief) that Fisk’s students would be deprived of its use from Fall 2013 through Summer 2015 (one and a half years). After Summer 2017, the collection would switch venues every two years—not a desirable situation for students wishing to enjoy and study those artworks, and not in accordance with donor O’Keeffe’s clear, written stipulations that the collection remain at Fisk and not be sold.

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