George: Free art

Sunday, September 19, 2010 at 9:00pm

Hazel O’Leary was writing thank-you notes on her computer when the phone rang last Tuesday evening. On the line was Fisk University’s legal counsel with news for the president: Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle had just issued an opinion ostensibly in the school’s favor, bringing closer to the end a nearly five-year legal dispute over the university’s attempt to sell part of its Stieglitz Collection, a 101-piece spread that has been valued at more than $70 million.

O’Leary bubbled as she listened to the attorney read the opinion over the phone, page by page, as each sputtered forth from the fax machine. Then it stopped. For 15 minutes, the fax machine was apparently jammed — a cosmic indication, perhaps, that although things seem to have finally shaken loose in the case that has outlined Fisk’s contemporary quagmire, there are still major problems in need of real solutions.

In her six-page order, Lyle rejected a proposal by Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper to move the famed collection — donated to Fisk by artist Georgia O’Keeffe in 1949 with a stipulation that it not be sold — to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts for display and maintenance, which university officials say costs them $131,000 a year, a tab they are finding increasingly difficult to cover. Cooper’s proposal, which O’Leary lambasted as basic theft and Fisk students protested in front of the Frist on Tuesday, would’ve given the university rights to reclaim the collection once it returned to more stable financial ground.

But in leaving Fisk with neither purse nor art, Cooper’s proposal failed to address the core issue: Fisk needs money. Further, it ought to be able to pursue that end in an unrestricted way; if it wants to sell off an endowed art collection — the terms of which arguably don’t apply to contemporary times — that should be its right as a private institution.

Lyle’s thinking appears to have shifted that way. Her order allows Fisk to enter into an agreement conceived in 2007 with the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark., to effectively split the year in possession of the collection — under certain court-imposed conditions. Fisk has said it would receive
$30 million, which would go a long way toward covering its $2 million annual losses.

“We were pleased with the chancellor’s opinion, and we believe that she has laid out the road map with respect to each clause to which she had objection in her earlier memorandum and opinion, and basically said, ‘I want it done this way,’ ” O’Leary said in an interview last week. “I think we can follow that instruction, and we are busily working on it and exchanging drafts with our colleagues at Crystal Bridges.”

The university must present its amended deal and a schedule of possession to the judge on Oct. 8; Cooper has until Oct. 22 to respond.

During the legal battle, much has been made of determining O’Keeffe’s intent in bestowing the collection — a terrific gathering of modernist art and photographs from the estate of famed photographer and curator Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s husband — to the historically black university.
When O’Keeffe donated the collection to a then-financially healthy Fisk in 1949, she paid mind to both the further teaching and appreciation of art in general, and to the racial politics of the time. As Christine Kreyling noted in her coverage of the trial for the Scene, O’Keeffe selected “a place in the segregated South where, in 1949, all of the public — not just the white public — could see it.”

O’Keeffe was a close friend of Carl Van Vechten, whose name adorns the gallery that now displays the Stieglitz Collection. Van Vechten, as O’Leary tells it, was a man taken with the Harlem Renaissance and African-American culture.

“He loved the art, he loved the drama, he loved the writers, he loved the people of Harlem,” O’Leary said. “And I think he was our advocate in trying to persuade Georgia to do something unique and different, and also to benefit Fisk.”

Van Vechten was a strong admirer and friend of Charles S. Johnson, the first African-American president of the university. “This was almost a gift to his friend, but it was through Georgia, because he had nothing to give but his influence,” O’Leary said.

Today, of course, anyone who wants to lay eyes on the collection may do so. We are no longer living in the segregated South, and placing works of art at a historically black university so that people of any color may experience them is not the subversive social act — or statement — it was in 1949.

Even still, whiffs of that era continue to clog our collective sinuses, and institutions like Fisk are crucial in our evolving understanding of a fully integrated society. Fisk’s starred national reputation stands not only among historically black schools but liberal arts institutions in general. No doubt, an internationally recognized collection of this caliber has furthered students’ understanding of art, expression, culture and place.

Now, the university’s board and president must leverage new money into a more stable financial future — or so one hopes.

I am an outsider to this, to be sure, but it seems that keeping the university afloat now so that it may better prepare for the coming years serves its mission more than adhering to an agreement whose time has, in many ways but certainly not all, passed.

64 Comments on this post:

By: yogiman on 9/20/10 at 3:40

Amy, you never really OWN your property. You may pay cash for your home, or you may pay your mortgage off, but... if you don't pay your taxes the government will come in and tack it over from you... because you owe them. You never really own you property.. by the rule of government's laws..

By: brrrrk on 9/20/10 at 3:41

The 20 best places in the world to live.... notice what's missing?

By: brrrrk on 9/20/10 at 3:44

AmyLiorate said

"No one who ceases to abide by the Amish ways has their property taken."

No offense Amy, but I was born and raised in Amish country. My dad spoke nothing but Pennsylvania Dutch until he went to school.... you know nothing about shunning and it's effects.

By: yogiman on 9/20/10 at 4:13

b4r, of all the cities named by Forbes as the best places to live, not one United States city was named. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? Why in the cornbread hell does all of those people all over the world want to come to live in the United States? You would think with those 'wonderful' cities they have in their countries they would stay home.

The main one they left out was Nashville, Tennessee. Or into the suburbs at least. Heck, give it a 80 mile radius.

By: brrrrk on 9/20/10 at 4:22

yogiman said

"b4r, of all the cities named by Forbes as the best places to live, not one United States city was named. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? Why in the cornbread hell does all of those people all over the world want to come to live in the United States?"

How many people do you personally know who live in other countries? I attend a hobby convention every year that has people in attendance from all over the world. Evenings at the convention are open to socialization and one of the topics is always conditions in other countries. So what's my point? Of all the people I've asked (and I ask), not a one has said they would abandon their country to live here. Don't get me wrong, they love to visit, and they're amazed at the size of our houses.... but live here? No way.

By: bfra on 9/20/10 at 4:40

brrrrk - I am sure you are talking to people that have aims in their lives, other than coming here to live off of welfare & taxpayers.

By: AmyLiorate on 9/20/10 at 4:50

sure brrrk, you are the authority on shunning.

But it is not the norm, it is rare in this country. More may be threatened by it than actually suffer directly but still they have more say in the matter.

You would take by much more direct force and for a lesser cause in my opinion.

Yogi is right to a degree. Do you know that Spring Hill, TN had no property tax until recently? Since we have no state property tax (yet) a person there could actually own their home. Sad is the day when we are enslaved by property tax.

By: brrrrk on 9/20/10 at 4:51

bfra said

"brrrrk - I am sure you are talking to people that have aims in their lives, other than coming here to live off of welfare & taxpayers."

Most of the people I'm talking about are people who would easily have the wherewithal, both financially and educationally, to move here. In fact, most would benefit significantly from our current tax laws. The reality is that it's all the other luggage that comes along with living here that have no interest in dealing with.

By: dargent7 on 9/20/10 at 4:52

Bill Mahr will take down O'Donnell just like the Swift Boaters' took down John Kerry in '04. It's all about karma. And her trail is Hindu wide.

By: budlight on 9/20/10 at 5:14

AmyLiorate on 9/20/10 at 4:02
How long to Mormons last on your doorstep?

Shunning can be done outside of church groups. I see people on here every day shunning Budlight.

Amy, are they shunning me? Or "funning" me? I think they are small minded, immature people who are anti-aging, forgetting, of course, their own journey to mindlessness and obsecurity.

Remember as micky mouse said: "It's a small world after all, it's a small world after all, it's a small world after all" ** Full of small, small minds. (last 5 words, creation of Budlight, aka Saint Bud to ya'll).

By: AmyLiorate on 9/20/10 at 8:32

It's a little of each bud. that's my take on what i see.

g'nite all

By: yogiman on 9/20/10 at 8:39

I just received a notice of the death of a friend, Mr. Common Sense.

Mr. Sense had been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic shenanigans.

He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as fairness and truth. Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don't spend more than you earn) and reliable parenting strategies (parents, not children in charge).

His health began to rapidly deteriorate when well meaning but overbearing regulations were set in place. Reports of a 6-year old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate on the cheek, teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch, and a teacher fired for reprimanding a unruly student, only worsened his condition. Mr. Sense health declined even further when schools were required to get parental consent to administer aspirin to a student but could not inform the parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.

Finally, Common Sense lost the will to live as the Ten Commandments became contraband, churches became businesses and criminals received better treatment that\n the victims. Common Sense could not go on when the leaders passed an important 2,000-page health care bill without knowing what was in it. The Speaker of the house informed the public that the contents of the bill would be known after the bill was passed.

And in another instance those very same leaders gave a standing ovation to a foreign president after he objected to one of the united states for enforcing foreign law.

And with his final breath, Common sense asked why half the citizens of the United States do not pay any income tax while the other half pays it all.

Common Sense was preceded in death by his parents, Truth and Trust, his wife, Discretion, his daughter Responsibility and his son Reason.

He is survived by two stepbrothers, My Rights and Ima Whiner.

Sadly, too many people did not attend his funeral because so few realized he was gone.

Not too sure who to credit this death notice to. It was noticed in the Sun Telegram of San Bernardino, CA under 'Slice of wry'.

By: yogiman on 9/20/10 at 10:40

Much is being said lately about the Obamacare health program placed into law by our legislature against the wish of 73 percent of the general population of our nation after Rep. Pelosi told them they could study it and understand it after it was voted in. All 2600 pages...

Many old folks seem to be worried about what will happen to them. But it seems a new solution has been developed for them.

The new plan gives anyone 65 or older a gun with four bullets. You will be allowed to shoot 2 senators and 2 representatives. Of course, this means you will be sent to prison.

There you will get 3 meals a day, a roof over your head and all the health care you need. Need new teeth? No problem. Need glasses? Great! just pick them up. Need a new hip? Kidney? Heart? No problem, all covered. And who will be paying for all of this? The same government that just told you that you are too old for health care.

And because you are a prisoner, you don't have to pay any income taxes anymore. And you will get what the politicians do... sit around 24/7.

Isn't this a great country, or what?

By: budlight on 9/21/10 at 5:55

Amy you are most probably right. However, I chose to believe there is still "some" good out there "somewhere". Yogiman, what a great post. Common sense is not as common as it used to be. And love? Where did love go?

Anyway, good a.m. to all. Got to get on the road by 8 a.m. to work one more day. oh well, at least I'll get a pay check and not a welfare check - yet.