Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tennessee AG's Nashvillian proposal for the O'Keeffe donation to Fisk University comes as no surprise

At the end of last month, the Chancery Court for the State of Tennessee denied Fisk cy-près relief in respect of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection donated to the University by Georgia O'Keeffe because the proposed sale to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, did not "closely approximate" O'Keeffe's intent for making the charitable gift. However, the Court did not rule out the sale all together- it merely rejected the Crystal Bridges Agreement as written at the time and ordered the Attorney General "to file a proposal with the Court for the display and maintenance of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection." Fisk would then be given an opportunity to respond and/or make any additional proposals.

Friday saw the deadline for the submission of the AG's proposal which called for the Collection to remain in Nashville and be displayed at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts until Fisk is in a financial position to care for and display the Collection. Given the Court of Appeals' instruction that the purpose of O'Keeffe's gift was to "enable the public- in Nashville and the South- to have the opportunity to study the Collection..." and the Chancery Court's finding that Bentoville fell outside the definition of "the South," it's hardly surprising that Attorney General Cooper's proposal is Nashville-based.

Much as I hate to admit it, this may well be as good as it gets for the 101-piece Collection. If Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle were to decide the fate of the Collection on behalf of art lovers (we should be so lucky), I'd expect she'd go for the Crystal Bridges sale over Cooper's plan: the $30 million deal would rescue Fisk from the brink of closure and allow a far wider audience to view the Collection in a state-of-the-art museum while still partially complying with O'Keeffe's wishes by displaying the Collection in Nashville six months of the year. But she's not "free to move charitable assets from one institution to the next to maximize the utility of those assets in some broad sense." Oh no. She has to comply as closely as possible with the wishes of the late O'Keeffe, whatever they may actually be, even if it means perpetuating the current trend of only 10,000 visitors viewing the Collection in a typical year.

I get it- courts have fashioned cy-près so that it affords some relief without discouraging charitable donations. It is for the "greater good," the Chancellor said, that the law allows donors to tie-up cultural assets in this way. So I'm buying my ticket to Nashville to go see the gifted works because as long as the law lets donors control their donations indefinitely from their graves (others think this is fine), I can't imagine how the Crystal Bridges Agreement can possibly be revised to triumph over the Frist alternative. I just hope it is ultimately all about art as donors rejoice and make generous donations to celebrate.

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