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Fisk University in Nashville wants to sell one of its prized possessions. Georgia O'Keeffe gave her iconic painting titled "Radiator Building, Night, New York" to the historically black school in 1949. It was one of more than a hundred paintings that she donated. Now Fisk wants to sell the O'Keeffe and a painting by Marsden Hartley to raise money for a new building and faculty positions. Rebecca Bain of member station WPLN reports.

REBECCA BAIN reporting:

The reason for selling the paintings is simple, says Dr. Hazel O'Leary, president of Fisk.

Dr. HAZEL O'LEARY (President, Fisk University): The university for the past five years has been running a $2 million deficit. I don't think you get to be among the best in America with that kind of history.

BAIN: The university hopes to raise about $20 million by selling the paintings. University attorney Michael Norton says that will go a long way toward helping Fisk fulfill its mission.

Mr. MICHAEL NORTON (Attorney for Fisk University): Clearly these two paintings were selected because they are the most valuable in the collection. You know, it's a hard thing when you have to look at something hanging on a wall and say, `Am I going to leave it there or am I going to use the money for educating kids?'

BAIN: There's no question O'Keeffe's "Radiator Building" is the most valuable. It's also one of the most iconic of her earlier works. The painting shows a lit-up skyscraper glowing against a pitch-black sky with `Stieglitz' spelled out on a neon sign. Art appraisers across the country are already predicting it will break the previous O'Keeffe record of $6.3 million. Kevin Grogan was the director of the university's galleries and collections throughout the 1990s. He says "Radiator Building" is the cornerstone of the Stieglitz Collection.

Mr. KEVIN GROGAN (Former Director of Fisk University's Galleries and Collections): It has long since, in a psychological sense, passed out of the university's hands. It is a community asset. And so they're not just realigning Fisk's capital assets; they're actually removing a cultural asset from the city of Nashville.

BAIN: In her deed of gift, Georgia O'Keeffe specified that the 101 pieces of art she donated to Fisk should be exhibited intact and that no items from the collection can be loaned at any time, but there is no stipulation against selling a work. Stephen Urice is director of the Project for Cultural Heritage Law and Policy.

Mr. STEPHEN URICE (Director, Project for Cultural Heritage Law and Policy): The term `exhibited intact'--a reasonable person can infer from that language that the donor's intent was to keep this collection whole. With the language as it is, however, there is a certain degree--not a lot, but a certain degree of uncertainty as to whether a work can be sold. There is no express prohibition.

BAIN: Still, the Tennessee attorney general has to rule on the sale, says Fisk's attorney, Michael Norton.

Mr. NORTON: We went to the attorney general and we said, `We'd like to sell two pieces of art so that we can preserve and protect and keep the other 99 pieces of art in the collection.' They ended up concluding that they could support our case as long as we meet three conditions.

BAIN: Those conditions are that Fisk will make an effort to sell the paintings to a collector or museum in Tennessee; that as a condition of the purchase, the buyer will give the public reasonable access to the painting; and that Fisk would use a portion of the proceeds to protect the remainder of the Stieglitz Collection. Still, legal expert Stephen Urice says, this will not help Fisk attract gifts in the future.

Mr. URICE: The blemish that will be created by having taken this action which is so clearly in violation of what Georgia O'Keeffe intended is a stain that will not fade quickly.

BAIN: The case is currently in chancery court. A ruling is expected within the next six months. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Bain in Nashville.

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