Treasures Trapped in a Closet

Imagine your business was forced to mortgage every building it owned, lay off staff, take out numerous loans and appeal to friends for money. Also imagine that your business owned 101 paintings estimated to be worth possibly up to $100 million dollars. Most businesses would fix point number one by cashing in point number two, but if your “business” is Fisk University in Tennessee, that option, unfortunately, isn’t on the table.

Deaccessioning — the official term for a museum of other entity selling off artwork from its permanent collection — is a move that is usually allowed only when the institution plans to reinvest that money in more artwork. Deaccessioning to raise operating capital is especially verboten and, if your museum adheres to the guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors, you may suffer severe sanctions if you proceed anyway. Unfortunately, the strictness of the rules leaves some institutions such as Fisk stuck with the possibility of owning treasures, but shutting its doors.

Deaccessioning has become a topic of budding interest for me in the last few months. Each case is fraught with heated rhetoric on both sides and in some cases, it really is difficult to pick a winner. I plan to talk here on Bybe about a few of the most interesting tid-bits I’ve found, but for this first post, let me finish up the Fisk story I started above.

In 1949 and again in the mid-50’s, Georgia O’Keeffe donated a total of 101 works of art to Fick University, many from the collection of her late husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. (This collection must have been immense; I’ve already talked about divvying up parts of the collection before on this blog.) In 2005, on the brink of financial ruin, the university pulled the works off the walls and put them in storage since they were unable to adequately maintain and protect the galleries. That same year, the board of trustees moved to sell two of the most important works — Radiator Building – Night, New York (1927) by O’Keeffe and Painting No. 3 (1913) by Marsden Hartley – which together might be worth between $20 and $45 million.

Radiator Building - Night, New York (1927) by Georgia O’Keeffe (left) and Painting No. 3 (1913) by Marsden Hartley (right)

Radiator Building - Night, New York (1927) by Georgia O’Keeffe (left) and Painting No. 3 (1913) by Marsden Hartley (right)

The sale found trouble from the start, though. O’Keeffe donated the works in two separate transactions, one which stipulated that the collection be put on permanent display and never be sold, while the second was free from such language. After examining the evidence, Tennessee’s Attorney General said he would approve the sale of the two paintings if a Tennessee buyer could be found, but the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in New Mexico raised a fit. They felt the sale violated O’Keeffe’s wishes (though both paintings in question came from the second, restriction-free donation) and wanted the whole lot turned over to the estate since the works weren’t even on display anymore. The museum, however, said it would drop its complaint if Fisk sold them Radiator Building outright for $7 million. How nice!

While the mess simmered, the university tried to circumvent an outright sale and entered a deal with Alice Walton, heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, to sell a half share interest in the entire collection for $30 million. The deal would have allowed Fisk to display the works half of the time and to display them at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas the other half. Alas, though the attorney general reacted by barring all sales and partial sales, Tennessean or not. I think he was right to balk at the low price offered by the O’Keeffe museum and should be praised for wanting to keep the works in his own great state, but the decision put Fisk worse off than before. Now, in addition to being broke, the university was fighting a court battle with the New Mexicans to even hold on to the bargaining chip that started it all.

In mid-2009, the legal issues finally came to a close. The courts found that the O’Keeffe Foundation held no rights in the matter and has allowed Fisk to do what they please with all 101 works. However, no sale has taken place (and none have publicly been discussed) due to the lingering stigma of selling them at all. What message, it is asked, does this send to other ailing institutions? Fisk remains in financial trouble, but the time spent treading water for years has forced the university to fundraise in other ways. The board still wants to sell the works, but outside pressure has placed the option on hold.

All the while, the works remain shuttered, perhaps the greatest travesty of it all.

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