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A Brief that Strains Belief: Fisk’s Legal Flip-Flop

Fisk University’s Carl Van Vechten Gallery, prior to closing

In its appeals brief (full text here) seeking to enter into a $30-million collection-sharing agreement with Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum, Fisk University continues to send a mixed and contradictory message about its ability to display and care for its Stieglitz Collection. (Complete list of its 101 works is here.)

On the one hand, Fisk feels compelled to argue that it is now financially capable of properly caring for the collection. Otherwise, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum may again assert its claim that, as the successor-in-interest to O’Keeffe, who gave the collection to the university, it should receive ownership of the artworks if Fisk can no longer fulfill the donor’s wishes. (In its appeal, Fisk is again challenging the legal validity of the O’Keeffe Museum’s contention that it could have a claim on the collection.)

On the other hand, the financially beleaguered university covets Alice’s cash. So it is reduced to saying this:

Fisk concluded its 2008 fiscal year with increased fundraising and reduced expenditures. This has permitted Fisk to divert operating funds that were not previously available to complete the [Carl Van Vechten] gallery improvements.

The increased donations Fisk received are not guarantied [sic] as a recurring revenue source, and while the funds assisted Fisk this year, there are no certainties of sources of income in the future. It does not, therefore, answer the real question—How long will Fisk survive without the $30 million it can receive from Crystal Bridges? For that answer, there must be a trial.

Fisk’s attempt to have it both ways, it seems to me, fatally undermines the credibility of its argument for doing the Walton deal. If Fisk has now managed to raise the cash needed to maintain the collection over the short term, it should labor mightily to extend this fundraising success over the long term, rather than taking the quick but legally and ethically problematic way out by monetizing the collection. Eventually, we’ll see if the Tennessee Court of Appeals agrees with me. This could take quite a while.

Fisk spokesman Ken West told me yesterday that, in accordance with the stipulations in
Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle‘s permanent mandatory injunction, the Stieglitz Collection will go back on view on Oct. 6 in the university’s Van Vechten Gallery, now closed and undergoing renovation.

What’s REALLY interesting about the brief is what it reveals to us about the finances of Walton’s Crystal Bridges: COMING SOON.

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