Unfair Share?

Unfair Share?
Alice Walton once again finds herself in a battle involving the acquisition of works from a public collection.

The Wal-Mart heiress, who is opening a museum of American art in Bentonville, Arkansas, has stirred controversy with her purchases of Asher B. Durands Kindred Spirits, 1849, from the New York Public Library for a reported $35 million in 2005 and of Thomas Eakinss Portrait of Professor Benjamin H. Rand, 1874, from Thomas Jefferson University for a reported $20 million in 2007.  Now she has offered to pay $30 million for a 50 percent stake in the Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art, owned by Fisk University. The proposal has attracted opposition from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, in Santa Fe, which had already arranged to buy one of the works from the Nashville college. A judge in Tennessee is scheduled to hear the case next month.

For the past two years, the financially troubled Fisk has been seeking to sell some of the 101-piece collection, featuring works by the likes of Charles Demuth, Pablo Picasso and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The art was donated to the university in 1949, three years after Stieglitz’s death, by his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, at the urging of photographer Carl Van Vechten, who was then chairman of Fisk’s Fine Arts Commission.

Fisk first sought court approval in 2005 to deaccession two paintings: O’Keeffe’s Radiator Building—Night, New York, 1927, considered the cornerstone of the collection, and Marsden Hartleys Painting No. 3, 1913. But the O’Keeffe Foundation opposed the sale, arguing that the transactions would violate O’Keeffe’s stipulations that the donated art be exhibited intact and that none of the pieces be sold. The foundation further asserted that Fisk had breached the terms of the gift by not displaying or properly maintaining the collection and sought to gain possession of all 101 works.

Last year the university and the O’Keeffe Museum, which has pursued the case in place of the now-defunct foundation, reached a settlement. The museum agreed to give up its claim to the entire collection and waive its objection to Fisk’s sale of the Hartley painting—which would have left the collection “99 percent unimpaired,” says museum president Saul Cohenin exchange for $7.5 million and possession of Radiator Building. Fisk would receive a high-quality reproduction of the O’Keeffe painting and the right to display the original for four months every four years. The settlement, says Cohen, was an attempt “to change a lose-lose situation into a win-win.”

But then Walton stepped in with an alternative arrangement: The university and her museum, Crystal Bridges, would jointly care for and manage the Stieglitz holdings, which would be kept intact, but would divide the exhibition time between Nashville and Bentonville. In addition to establishing a Crystal Bridges–funded internship program that would enable Fisk students to study the collection, Walton also personally pledged $1 million toward the renovation and maintenance of the university’s Carl Van Vechten Gallery, which houses the Stieglitz Collection and which is currently closed for repairs.

In light of this offer, the O’Keeffe Museum settlement was rejected by Tennessee Chancery Court judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle and state attorney general Robert E. Cooper Jr., whose office oversees legal conditions on charitable gifts.

The battle between Fisk and the O’Keeffe Museum raises ethical and legal questions pertaining to art bequests, particularly when an organization is no longer fiscally capable of properly caring for the works or fulfilling the conditions imposed at the time of the gift. It also highlights recent attempts by struggling colleges and universities to liquidate their art collections in order to pay bills and increase endowment. When Randolph-Macon College, in Lynchburg, Virginia, attempted to auction four paintings by George Bellows, Ernest Hennings, Edward Hicks and Rufino Tamayo at Christie’s New York this past November, the Virginia Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction preventing the works from being sold.

The O’Keeffe Museum has once again asked the Tennessee court to grant it full possession of the Stieglitz collection, repeating the allegation that Fisk had breached the terms of O’Keeffe’s donation. The museum does not want to hurt Fisk but is obligated to oppose Walton’s proposition because it “changes the whole intent of the gift,” says Cohen. “O’Keeffe made the gift to help Fisk. Under the terms of the Crystal Bridges deal, the collection would be taken out of state and exhibited in Arkansas for half the time.”

The O’Keeffe Museum’s opposition to Walton’s offer is “a bit disingenuous” and “mean-spirited,” says Fisk spokesperson Ken West. “The museum was willing to break up the collection as long as it received a benefit. It wants Radiator Building at any cost, and it is willing to cause harm to Fisk in order to get it.” 

"Unfair Share?" originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's January 2008 Table of Contents.