Deal agreed on Alfred Stieglitz Collection

06th August 2012

The seven-year long, divisive and very heated legal battle over the future of Fisk University's brilliant art collection has finally come to an agreeable resolution. The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, which will be preserved in its entirety, will now be shared between the Tennessean institute and Arkansas' Crystal Bridges of Museum Art every two years.

"It’s been many years and we are grateful for the time, effort and final court decision that will enable Crystal Bridges to enhance public access to this important collection," stated Alice Walton, chair of Crystal Bridges' board.

"We’re feeling great about the future of the Stieglitz Collection. The Fisk-Crystal Bridges partnership keeps the collection intact and ensures its long-term preservation and access."

The story of this unique case began in 2005. Under mounting financial pressure, Fisk University had decided to give a 50 per cent stake in the collection to the museum, which it valued at $30 million (approximately £19.2 million). With a regular annual deficit of $2 million (£1.28 million), urgent action was needed. Needless to say the financial crisis in 2008 didn't help matters.

However, this proposal went against the wishes of Georgia O'Keeffe, the famous American artist and widower of the equally celebrated Stieglitz (a pioneering photographer). She had specifically donated the works to Fisk University in 1949 under the strict proviso that they would stay together.

Fisk, which is a historic university, and named after Clinton B. Fisk, a key figure in developing free schools during Reconstruction-era America, had been adamant that if it didn't raise such a huge amount of cash via the partial sale, it would no longer be able to continue as a university.

This deal has ensured its future and that of the collection. It's not perfect, but in light of all the wider considerations, it is the best that could be attained. No one wanted the case to drag on any longer.

"Fisk will remain as Nashville’s oldest university, which has and will continue to provide a nationally recognised educational experience for its students and also to make an important contribution to Nashville’s culture and history," said Hazel O'Leary, president of the university.

"The Stieglitz Collection is not lost to Nashville, but is saved to be exhibited here for two of every four years. Fisk will, probably for the first time, have the financial ability and professional expertise available at Crystal Bridges to do everything necessary and appropriate to care for and exhibit the Collection."

However, critics were less than satisfied with the decision, which was finalised by the Davidson County Chancery Court in Nashville. One vocal opponent, who described the agreement as "unfortunate", is Saul Cohen, former president of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Speaking to The Tennessean, he said: "It means there’s no enforcement for people who give gifts and want conditions met. It may have an impact on people's willingness to give. It’s sad for the university and for museums and nonprofits."

What he is referring to here is a so-called "chilling effect". Because a precedent of sorts has been set, those who may have considered donating their respective art collections to museums, galleries or indeed universities, will be more reluctant to do so in the future.

Art collections are often about legacies, and when owners bestow them on the public, they do so under the assumption that the public will enjoy the works as was intended. Of course, where artistic merit deems it necessary, some works will be lent to other institutions, this is understandable.

However, when threatened with the possible reality that such a collection may be, under certain conditions, permanently moved from its desired home, there is a great deal of cause for concern. Add to that the scenario that this collection itself may also be dissolved, the exquisite product of years of hard work, it is reasonable to deduce that cautiousness is a far better mode of operation.

That all 101 works of art remain together in this instance will, nevertheless, be of some consolation to people like Mr Cohen, as it at least preserves integrity of the unique assembly of the resolutely modernist paintings and objects.

Artists represented include the "older masters" like Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera, juxtaposed nicely with the "younger generation of modernists" in Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and Charles Demuth, who are also represented in the collection.

"Alfred Stieglitz spent much of his life advocating and supporting American art, including the support of American artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin and Charles Demuth, among many others," commented Victor Simmons, director and curator of the Fisk University Galleries.

"I can think of no better place for the art to be exhibited, while away from Fisk, than in a museum of such quality and as dedicated to American Art as is Crystal Bridges."

Cadogan Tate is a leader in fine art storage and shipping services, represented by expert art handlers.

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