Ruling says Fisk can sell part of art collection

Fisk University can sell a share of its Stieglitz art collection, but the bulk of the proceeds must go to an endowment for the display of the artwork, a judge ruled in an order released Thursday.

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Fisk University can sell a share of its Stieglitz art collection, but the bulk of the proceeds must go to an endowment for the display of the artwork, a judge ruled in an order released Thursday.

To fend off bankruptcy, the historically black university wanted to sell a 50 percent stake in the collection for $30 million to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark. Fisk has argued it is a financial burden to maintain and display the 101-piece collection donated by the late painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

The ruling by Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle said Fisk can keep $10 million of the funds for the university and the remaining $20 million would go into an endowment that would support the cost of displaying the artwork.

Lyle said in her ruling that this plan meets O’Keeffe’s wishes to have the artwork in Nashville and provides money to support the display even if Fisk closes. O’Keeffe donated the art to Fisk in 1949 because the school, founded in 1866, educated blacks at a time when the South was segregated.

In a statement issued Thursday, Fisk President Hazel R. O’Leary said she was pleased the ruling allowed the university to sell the share, but said the $20 million endowment was excessive.

The ruling says the restricted endowment would generate $1 million a year. O’Leary said evidence was presented to the judge that Fisk’s costs to display the art would only be about $130,000 a year.

"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," the school said in a statement.

The Tennessee Attorney General’s office said in a statement it was disappointed with the ruling because it was contrary to the donor’s wishes. Attorney General Robert Cooper is involved in the case because his office has jurisdiction over charitable giving in Tennessee. Cooper has argued that allowing Fisk to sell a donated art collection would deter future gifts in the Volunteer State.

Cooper’s office had submitted an earlier proposal in which Fisk alumna Carol Creswell-Betsch would establish a fund to pay the maintenance and display costs of the collection.

The fund is named in honor of Creswell-Betsch’s mother, Pearl Creswell, who was the first curator of the Stieglitz collection, which includes works by Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne, Marsden Hartley and Diego Rivera as well as O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz, an art promoter and photographer.

"The Pearl Creswell Fund is an alternative that would allow the art to be displayed on the Fisk campus full time at no cost to the university," the statement said.

Creswell-Betsch also said in a statement she was disappointed in the ruling, saying the decision "saves neither the art nor the university." She said she will continue to support the creation of a fund to ensure the artwork would stay in Nashville.

Fisk rejected that proposal because it didn’t address the school’s immediate financial needs.

Both sides said they were still looking over the ruling and will review their options.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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