Fisk University Barred from Selling O'Keeffe Collection, Nashville, Tenn.

NASHVILLE, Tenn.— A Nashville judge rejected Fisk University’s proposal to sell a half-share of its collection to the Arkansas Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for $30 million, further endangering the future of the financially imperiled liberal arts school. Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle demanded that Fisk offer a new plan by October 8, one that both meets the standards of care and exhibition stipulated by Georgia O’Keeffe in 1949 when the late artist donated the 101 works — standards which Fisk can no longer afford to enact. Lyle also ordered that the new plan be made to represent what she called a more "Nashville-based solution."

The judge expressed her sympathy for the school in her in her ruling, writing that "it is impracticable for a struggling university on the brink of closing to literally comply with Ms. O’Keeffe’s plan that Fisk maintain and display the collection." Yet Lyle found that the tiny, historically black university’s effort to sell a share of the work out of state would break conclusively with O’Keeffe’s wishes that her collection of 74 pieces from the estate of her late husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, along with four pieces that she owned, never be sold or displayed separately.

The ruling is just the latest development in a five-year battle over the $74 million collection, during which Fisk has struggled to define what the responsibilities of an institution with a $2 million deficit and an emaciated, restricted endowment (which cannot be used to maintain the collection or fill gaps in the university budget) might be to its art holdings versus its 700-some students.

According to a report by Nashville Public Radio, the ruling that Fisk cannot "override, thwart, and dilute the purpose for which Ms. O’Keeffe made the gift" creates a chance that the Tennessee University may have to suspend operations. The development follows a string of controversies at Brandeis over the Massachusetts university’s contentious attempt to sell or rent the contents of its Rose Art Museum in order to shore up its precarious finances.

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