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Nashville/Bentonville Saga: What&#146s Next in Fisk/Crystal Bridges Stieglitz Collection Case?


Will the above works by Georgia O’Keeffe at Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR, soon be joined by this?

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Radiator Building—Night, New York,” 1927, Fisk University, Nashville

Posting Monday evening in haste, I suggested (based on accounts I had read) that the prolonged court battle regarding the fate of Fisk University’s Stieglitz Collection is finally over, except for the working out of details by Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle. Court permission was needed for Fisk’s plan to sell a half-share of its collection to Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum, because this violated the written
no-sale stipulation by the collection’s donor, artist Georgia

But yet-to-be-resolved details may have a significant impact on the implementation of the agreement and could engender more legal wrangling. In refusing to hear an appeal by the state’s Attorney General, the Tennessee Supreme Court let stand a Court of Appeals ruling that green-lighted the plan but sent the case back to Chancellor Lyle to determine “whether, in light of the approval of the Revised Sharing Agreement [between Fisk and Crystal Bridges], further measures are necessary to accomplish the purposes of [donor Georgia O’Keeffe’s] gift.

The Court of Appeals had decreed (p. 18):

The [County] court and the parties should consider the effect of the [Appeals] court’s approval of the Revised Sharing Agreementn as well as the results to be achieved by the implementation of the renovation plan and endowment contemplated by the Alice Walton pledge of $1 million on the continuing obligations of Fisk to comply with the conditions imposed by Ms. O’Keeffe, and to allow Fisk the opportunity to set forth how those obligations will be met in the future.

In holding that, under the facts of this case, the court’s authority does not extend to requiring an endowment, we do not preclude the court from approving an endowment or other dedicated source of support in the event such a proposal is presented [emphasis added].

Will Fisk or the Attorney General “present such a proposal” (for an endowment) to Chancellor Lyle? Here’s a statement released to me today by Cooper’s office:

The Court of Appeals noted [in a footnote to the above-quoted passage] that Fisk has not disclosed how it intends to use the $30 million proceeds from the sale. Thus, on remand, the burden is on Fisk [emphasis added] to come forward with a plan on how it will use the proceeds to comply with the conditions Ms. O’Keeffe imposed. Because we do not yet know what plan Fisk will be proposing, we cannot speculate as to what our position would be.

Chancellor Lyle has been unpredictable and somewhat erratic in past rulings in this case. In her most recent decision
(overridden by the Court of Appeals), she had allowed
the half-sale of the Stieglitz Collection to go forward,
but only if $20 million of the $30-million sale price were “removed from
Fisk and used to endow a Nashville connection for the collection”—a compromise that displeased both sides but that suggests she may be interested in seeing an endowment as part of the final arrangement. The
Court of Appeals had scrapped Lyle’s restriction on the use of proceeds, handing Fisk a complete victory.

C. Michael Norton, one of Fisk’s lawyers, told me today that the Court of Appeals decision “definitely clears the way for the sharing arrangement agreement to be concluded.”

Norton added:

Once the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, the Court of Appeals decision became the final word….The Court of Appeals approved the Revised Sharing Agreement and that approval cannot be challenged any further, even by a new theory conjured up in an amicus brief.

However, Lyle’s yet-to-come stipulations for implementing the deal could conceivably be challenged, thus further prolonging this protracted legal battle.

And then there’s the matter of Fisk’s presidential transition: Last February, the university announced that its president, Hazel O’Leary, who promoted the Crystal Bridges deal as necessary to the university’s financial survival, is stepping down at the end of this year. It’s possible that a change in leadership could change how the Stieglitz Collection is regarded by Fisk’s administration—as an important cultural and educational asset for the students and the greater Nashville community, rather than as a fungible asset to mitigate the university’s financial shortfalls.

However, by the time the new president arrives, it will likely be too late for a change of course. Under the agreement between Fisk and Crystal Bridges, the transaction must close within 35 business days after the judgment of the court is final.

It’s clear that the president’s search is nowhere near its conclusion. Just last Monday, Fisk posted on its website a new call for applicants—Fisk University Continues Search For President:

Applicants should possess a terminal degree (preferred) and a distinguished record of senior leadership experience and professional achievement in higher education or an equivalent level of functional
responsibility in a related setting such as business, government or
nonprofit enterprises.

A proven ability to achieve results in
fundraising is required. In addition, we are seeking an individual with
an appreciation and commitment to HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and who understands the
heritage, sense of pride and validation inherent in these institutions.

Don Bacigalupi, executive director of Crystal Bridges, said this on the latest developments in this Fisk/Stieglitz saga:

As the details of the ruling are being finalized in Tennessee, we welcome the opportunity to work with both the Tennessee Attorney General and the Chancery Court. Sharing this resource allows diverse audiences in Tennessee and Arkansas and the nation to engage with remarkable works of art and ensures that the collection will remain intact for generations to come.

While it awaits the possible arrival of the Stieglitz Collection, Crystal Bridges will soon host a temporary exhibition of another important American art trove—some 45 Hudson River School works from the New-York Historical Society, on view May 5-Sept. 3. While admission to Crystal Bridges is free, it will charge non-member adults $5 to enter this loan show.

And in other Crystal Bridges news: On Apr. 6, the museum announced the precipitous departure, effective just six days later, of the second-in-command among its art professionals. Matthew Dawson, deputy director for art
and education, has left “to pursue
other [unspecified] opportunities in the museum field.” He plans “to return to Toronto,” according to the announcement, after having spent scarcely a year in Bentonville.

Regarding this surprising development, Bacigalupi commented: “As the Museum continues our transition from opening to operational
mode, we anticipated there would inevitably be some changes with which
to contend.” Another change was the departure of founding chief curator Chris Crosman, who left his post Dec. 31, after spending the last six years developing the museum, which opened on Nov. 11.

CrysCur.jpgCrystal Bridges curatorial team, outside the museum’s library last November, shortly after the opening
to right: David Houston, curatorial director, Matt Dawson, the now departed deputy
director for art and education, Kevin Murphy, American art curator, and…

…founding chief curator Chris Crosman, who has also left the building

For my CultureGrrl tour of the new museum and its collection, go here, here and here.

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