Bid to Sell O'Keeffe Work Thwarted Tennessee's attorney general has rejected Fisk University's effort to sell a Georgia O'Keeffe painting to a museum, calling the sale price "too deep a discount" to approve. The attempt has ignited a debate in Nashville.


Bid to Sell O'Keeffe Work Thwarted

Bid to Sell O'Keeffe Work Thwarted

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Tennessee's attorney general has rejected Fisk University's effort to sell a Georgia O'Keeffe painting to a museum, calling the sale price "too deep a discount" to approve. The attempt has ignited a debate in Nashville.


After her husband's death in 1949, Georgia O'Keefe donated a collection of more than 100 artworks from his estate to Fisk University. She wanted great works of art from Cezanne to Toulouse-Lautrec to be available to students at that historically black college and to people in the surrounding community. But now, Fisk needs money and wants to sell part of its collection. NPR's Audie Cornish has more.

AUDIE CORNISH: Hoping to boost its endowment, Fisk wanted to sell two of the most valuable paintings in the Stieglitz collection. But the Georgia O'Keefe Foundation sued to stop them, saying that breaking up the collection would violate O'Keefe's original wishes. Instead, the O'Keefe museum said it wouldn't sue - if Fisk sold them one of the paintings, the most valuable, "Radiator Building" by Georgia O'Keefe herself. They offered Fisk $7 million. But Tennessee's attorney general, Robert Cooper, says that's not nearly enough, and last week, refused to approve the deal.

Attorney General ROBERT COOPER (Tennessee Supreme Court): This price was far below what would be a fair price to pay in settlement of these legal claims. In my mind, given that settlement price, it makes more sense for Fisk to go forward with its lawsuit.

CORNISH: Cooper had given Fisk 30 days to look for people who'd give the university money to keep the collection at the school. Instead, the university got several offers to buy the paintings for 20 million. Armed with this new information about the artwork, school officials say they are ready to go to court to fight for the right to sell.

Meanwhile, there are Fisk students who have never even seen the painting because the school doesn't have enough money to keep its gallery doors open. Campus reaction to the university's plans range from emotional…

Mr. SHAWN NICKS(ph): Selling two paintings from that collection is like losing a family member.

CORNISH: …to indifference.

Mr. AKEEM RICHARDSON(ph): The resident area and the classrooms aren't up to par. And if the school deems that the only way to bring these things up to par is to sell the painting, then I'm for it.

CORNISH: …to disbelief.

Ms. AKILA TURNER(ph): You mean to tell me that this is the only thing is sell these paintings to raise the money? Come on, now, you're not using your resources.

CORNISH: Shawn Nicks(ph), Akeem(ph) Richardson and Akila(ph) Turner say they wish the school had been more aggressive in asking for help from the alumni or the community. Jock Reynolds agrees.

Mr. JOCK REYNOLDS (Director, Yale University Art Gallery): It's always, frankly, quite embarrassing for anyone in financial distress to have to ask for help or advice.

CORNISH: Reynolds is director of the Yale University Art Gallery and has studied art collections at historically black colleges.

Mr. REYNOLDS: And perhaps that's one of the reasons Fisk didn't reach out to others. But it frankly would have done better to have done that in the beginning, and perhaps none of this would have happened and a more amicable and natural(ph) solution would have already been proposed.

CORNISH: Both Reynolds and the Tennessee attorney general say halting the settlement might inspire potential donors or give the school time to forge partnerships that would keep the Stieglitz collection intact and put the O'Keefe painting back on display. In the meantime, the O'Keefe Museum's lawsuit against the school moves forward this summer.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Nashville.

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