A college's art treasure dilemma: to sell or to hold?

An O'Keeffe painting is at the center of a storm over Fisk University's plan to raise funds by selling it.

"Radiator Building," a Georgia O'Keeffe painting of a nighttime slab of New York skyline, is not merely a cornerstone of the art collection at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. It may also represent the college's salvation from desperate financial straits, if the artwork were to be sold on the open market.

But whether Fisk, one of the best-known of America's 114 historically black colleges, should sell "Radiator Building" has become a matter of debate and legal wrangling. It could fetch as much as $25 million for the struggling university, but critics say it would undermine O'Keeffe's intent for giving a collection of works, including "Radiator Building," to Fisk University in 1949. It's a matter, they say, of honoring artistic legacy and preserving the integrity of donors' gifts.

Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper Jr. is expected to file an opinion this week on the proposed sale.

Temptation can be strong among financially strapped small colleges, some of them black, to liquidate treasures for short-term cash relief.

"Many of our schools find themselves in tough dilemmas between what to do when you have an asset that can bring some much-needed funding" and how that's weighed against the original wishes of the donor, says Kassie Freeman, author of "African Americans and College Choice."

Though most of the 30 major art collections housed at black colleges focus on African-themed art, many contain "mainstream" pieces, says Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund in New York. Still, he says, the role of the O'Keeffe in the broader collection at Fisk can be debated.

"In many cases, [black schools] got works when they were not expensive and didn't seem to be very valuable, and 50 years later these works are worth substantial amounts of money," says Mr. Lomax.

When O'Keeffe handed Fisk a 101-piece collection that included everything from Cezanne sketches to photographs by her husband, Arthur Stieglitz, she wanted in part to show solidarity with African-Americans in the Jim Crow-era South. It also gave her an opportunity to have all the art permanently displayed in one place.

Yet as Fisk's endowment dwindled, maintaining the collection has become difficult, and many pieces are relegated to storage. A cash infusion would be used both to spruce up the museum and to bolster the school's endowment and general fund. "The major collection we're investing in is our students," Fisk President Hazel O'Leary has said about her push to sell the painting.

The first attempt to sell "Radiator Building" was blocked in court by the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., which argued that the deal broke with O'Keeffe's wishes to keep the collection together. Attorney General Cooper also interceded, saying the sale price of $7 million was too low. Bona fide counteroffers of more than $20 million have since appeared.

In response to a June 12 chancery court ruling against Fisk's plan, the O'Keeffe museum and Fisk have offered a compromise: Not quite a sale, the deal would still give Fisk $7.5 million but would allow it to display "Radiator Building" for part of each year.

Cooper concedes it's a complex issue. "In weighing [the sale] against the ... importance of Fisk University to Nashville and the nation, this office must conclude that the preservation of the collection is not worth the risk of financially crippling one of the preeminent historically black colleges," wrote Cooper in a February letter.

In an interview last week, he added: "It's still our hope that there will be alternatives that will leave the collection intact."

The trend of "deaccessioning" art treasures is growing on pace with auction house inflation.

Last year, an uproar ensued in Philadelphia over a decision by Thomas Jefferson University to sell a $68 million Thomas Eakins painting. The painting ultimately stayed in Philly, but to bankroll the sale, one of the local buying institutions had to sell a painting – another Eakins.

An attempt to sell part of the Maier Museum of Art collection at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va., also outraged many alumni. While Fisk is the only widely publicized example of a major art sale from a black college, one school, Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., has sold a different asset – a sizable plot of its campus – to raise funds.

Vibrant, intact art collections are one way for colleges to promote the connection between the past and the present – something that appeals to many young blacks, says Tina Dunkley, Clark Atlanta University's art director. Once the vault door is open, she says, it's hard to close it again.

"If you're going to liquidate treasures for building endowment ... you'll be tempted to go back to the collection and do it again," she says.

Such moves could scare off future donors, say critics. "It raises a question in the minds of donors: Is that where I want to put my collection, and is it going to be something that is not used the way it was intended?" says Ms. Freeman.

If the Fisk deal gets done, it could illustrate collaborative new ways for schools to receive "fees" for art while still technically keeping their collections intact. It may also open the way for additional deals, as art dealers start rooting through university collections for masterpieces.

The United Negro College Fund has another option: boosting alumni giving. Eight percent of alumni from black schools donate financially, compared with about 30 percent for all schools, says Lomax. UNCF's new "capacity building" grants aim to help black schools do just that. Fisk is applying for a grant.

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