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Court of Appeals Approves Fisk/Crystal Bridges Collection-Sharing Arrangement, Gives University Free Rein with Proceeds

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Mega-donor (and donor-intent violator) Alice Walton, speaking at the opening-day ceremony for her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

The Tennessee Court of Appeals, Nashville, yesterday handed Fisk University (and, by extension, Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) a victory in the four-year quest for court approval of a $30-million deal whereby Crystal Bridges would buy a half-share in Fisk’s Stieglitz Collection, which is particularly rich in modernist American art. The 101 works were given to the university by artist Georgia O’Keeffe, widow of photographer/gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, with the explicit written stipulation that they never be sold.

Fisk’s celebratory statement on the ruling is here. An appeal to the State Supreme Court by the Tennessee Attorney General, who has strongly opposed the deal, is possible. So far, all the AG’s office has said is this: “We are reviewing the opinion and will be evaluating our options.”

In the most recent previous ruling, the Davidson County Chancery Court had granted permission for the deal, but only if $20 million were “removed from Fisk and used to endow a Nashville connection for the collection.”

But the Court of Appeals, in its 2-1 decision, ruled that the courts had no authority to establish a $20-million endowment for the collection. In other words, Fisk could use the entire $30 million to alleviate its serious financial difficulties.

The appeals court has now sent the case back to Davidson Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle “for reconsideration of whether, in light of the approval of the Revised Sharing Agreement, further measures are necessary to accomplish the purposes of the [O’Keeffe’s] gift.” The court said that while it could not require an endowment, “we do not preclude the [Davidson County] court from approving an endowment or other dedicated source of support, in the event such a proposal is presented.”

In his dissent, Judge Frank Clement Jr. favored retaining Lyle’s requirement for $20 million to be removed from the university’s control and set aside to endow the collection’s Nashville connection.

It is more than a little ironic that Alice Walton, herself the donor of a major American art collection for the public benefit, would countenance a deal that violates the explicitly stated wishes of another donor. In my Oct. 10, 2007 article for the Wall Street Journal about Walton’s controversial collecting practices, I wrote:

In her June 8, 1949, letter to Fisk, O’Keeffe said that it was her
understanding that Fisk “will not at any time sell or exchange any of
the objects” in the collection. The university’s then president pledged
to honor that understanding. Loans were to be allowed only for major
retrospectives.

The Fisk/Crystal Bridges arrangement also runs afoul of stipulations by the Association of Art Museum Directors that proceeds from art sales by an art museum—including a university art museum—should be used only to buy other art, never to defray the operating expenses or debts of the museum, let alone of a university that maintains the museum (scroll to P. 26, B). AAMD specifically condemned the Fisk deal in an October 2010 letter that it sent to the university’s president, Hazel O’Leary.

Better late than never, AAMD should now strongly exert its influence on the institution over which it actually has leverage—not Fisk (whose Van Vechten Gallery does not belong to AAMD) but Crystal Bridges, which has repeatedly professed a desire to be embraced by the professional art museum community.

The full text of the Court of Appeals majority opinion is here. The dissent is here.

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