Sunday, November 07, 2010

Finally, the fate of the Stieglitz Collection (and Fisk) are resolved

Of all the Chancery Court's rulings over the past few months in the ongoing Fisk litigation, the latest ruling this week was no less shocking. First, the Chancellor rejected the Crystal Bridges agreement as then-written and invited the Tennessee Attorney General to come up with a more donor-friendly alternative, which he did in accordance with the Court's decipherment at the time of the "donor's intent." Then, she rejected that proposal and instead embraced the Crystal Bridges agreement in an unexpected reinterpretation of the donor's intent (turned out Georgia O'Keeffe did actually care about Fisk) but requested it be revised as per the Court's explicit instructions. That the parties did (the Attorney General made a second proposal but to no avail) and now the Court has approved the terms of the revised agreement and thrown in one major revision of its own for good measure. The Bentonville, Arkansas, museum "will pay the financially troubled university $30 million to acquire a one-half interest in the Collection... but Fisk may have discretionary use of only $10 million of the proceeds [Chancellor Lyle's newest twist to this saga]... The rest is to be placed in an endowment fund and used solely for the costs of displaying and maintaining the art." $20 million to cover the costs of displaying and maintaining a 101-piece collection?!! The reason for the split is none other than the ever-elusive notion of "donor intent." The problem of donor intent is a recurring theme in this kind of litigation but this week's ruling apportioning actual percentages between the donor's intended beneficiaries is pure guess work. Having decided that O'Keeffe did care about Fisk in a prior ruling, the Court has now gone one step too far into the abyss of "donor intent" by stating that the "role" (yes, "role" believe it or not) the donor intended for Fisk was exactly one third of the "total roles" for the gift. Pure guess work I tell you.


  1. The nub of the matter is surely whether O'Keeffe intended simply to find a home for her gift or also to benefit the recipient of the gift. Evidence of the second surely needs to be strong and clear. Often the recipients, in their anxiety to hang on to what they have received or to make use of it, imagine far more than is the case.

  2. There's no doubt that at the core of this litigation (like so many others of its kind) is what the donor intended and the evidentiary issues associated with deciphering it. Courts should not be engaging in guess work nor, I agree, should donees be allowed to let their imaginations run wild. The bottom line is that donors must make their intentions crystal clear, for the sake of all those involved, not least the legal system and the gifted art.