Hazel O’Leary was writing thank-you notes on her computer when the phone rang last Tuesday evening. On the line was Fisk University’s legal counsel with news for the president: Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle had just issued an opinion ostensibly in the school’s favor, bringing closer to the end a nearly five-year legal dispute over the university’s attempt to sell part of its Stieglitz Collection, a 101-piece spread that has been valued at more than $70 million.
O’Leary bubbled as she listened to the attorney read the opinion over the phone, page by page, as each sputtered forth from the fax machine. Then it stopped. For 15 minutes, the fax machine was apparently jammed — a cosmic indication, perhaps, that although things seem to have finally shaken loose in the case that has outlined Fisk’s contemporary quagmire, there are still major problems in need of real solutions.
In her six-page order, Lyle rejected a proposal by Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper to move the famed collection — donated to Fisk by artist Georgia O’Keeffe in 1949 with a stipulation that it not be sold — to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts for display and maintenance, which university officials say costs them $131,000 a year, a tab they are finding increasingly difficult to cover. Cooper’s proposal, which O’Leary lambasted as basic theft and Fisk students protested in front of the Frist on Tuesday, would’ve given the university rights to reclaim the collection once it returned to more stable financial ground.
But in leaving Fisk with neither purse nor art, Cooper’s proposal failed to address the core issue: Fisk needs money. Further, it ought to be able to pursue that end in an unrestricted way; if it wants to sell off an endowed art collection — the terms of which arguably don’t apply to contemporary times — that should be its right as a private institution.
Lyle’s thinking appears to have shifted that way. Her order allows Fisk to enter into an agreement conceived in 2007 with the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark., to effectively split the year in possession of the collection — under certain court-imposed conditions. Fisk has said it would receive
$30 million, which would go a long way toward covering its $2 million annual losses.
“We were pleased with the chancellor’s opinion, and we believe that she has laid out the road map with respect to each clause to which she had objection in her earlier memorandum and opinion, and basically said, ‘I want it done this way,’ ” O’Leary said in an interview last week. “I think we can follow that instruction, and we are busily working on it and exchanging drafts with our colleagues at Crystal Bridges.”
The university must present its amended deal and a schedule of possession to the judge on Oct. 8; Cooper has until Oct. 22 to respond.
During the legal battle, much has been made of determining O’Keeffe’s intent in bestowing the collection — a terrific gathering of modernist art and photographs from the estate of famed photographer and curator Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s husband — to the historically black university.
When O’Keeffe donated the collection to a then-financially healthy Fisk in 1949, she paid mind to both the further teaching and appreciation of art in general, and to the racial politics of the time. As Christine Kreyling noted in her coverage of the trial for the Scene, O’Keeffe selected “a place in the segregated South where, in 1949, all of the public — not just the white public — could see it.”
O’Keeffe was a close friend of Carl Van Vechten, whose name adorns the gallery that now displays the Stieglitz Collection. Van Vechten, as O’Leary tells it, was a man taken with the Harlem Renaissance and African-American culture.
“He loved the art, he loved the drama, he loved the writers, he loved the people of Harlem,” O’Leary said. “And I think he was our advocate in trying to persuade Georgia to do something unique and different, and also to benefit Fisk.”
Van Vechten was a strong admirer and friend of Charles S. Johnson, the first African-American president of the university. “This was almost a gift to his friend, but it was through Georgia, because he had nothing to give but his influence,” O’Leary said.
Today, of course, anyone who wants to lay eyes on the collection may do so. We are no longer living in the segregated South, and placing works of art at a historically black university so that people of any color may experience them is not the subversive social act — or statement — it was in 1949.
Even still, whiffs of that era continue to clog our collective sinuses, and institutions like Fisk are crucial in our evolving understanding of a fully integrated society. Fisk’s starred national reputation stands not only among historically black schools but liberal arts institutions in general. No doubt, an internationally recognized collection of this caliber has furthered students’ understanding of art, expression, culture and place.
Now, the university’s board and president must leverage new money into a more stable financial future — or so one hopes.
I am an outsider to this, to be sure, but it seems that keeping the university afloat now so that it may better prepare for the coming years serves its mission more than adhering to an agreement whose time has, in many ways but certainly not all, passed.