SCOTT SIMON, host:
On Friday, Fisk University in Nashville announced it's asked to judge to approve an agreement in principle that would bring $30 million to the school. The deal involves an offer to share a valuable art collection donated to the historically black college nearly 60 years ago by Georgia O'Keeffe.
The offer comes from Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, who has built a new museum of American art in Bentonville, Arkansas. But her attempts to fill it are proving controversial as WHYY's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE: If the deal gets court approval, the art collection, which includes one of Georgia O'Keeffe's most iconic cityscapes, will be shared equally between Fisk University and The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas.
Fisk president Hazel O'Leary says the unusual arrangement will put the school on firm financial footing for the first time in decades.
Ms. HAZEL O'LEARY (President, Fisk University): The board of Trustees of this university would have never reached the decision to monetize some pieces in the collection had there not been a very urgent financial need. The patient was definitely in ICU.
ROSE: O'Leary says, for several years, Fisk had been dipping into its endowment. Today, it's dwindled to just $8 million. And O'Leary says the 101 pieces of art in question are currently in storage anyway. They've been the subject of illegal disputes since 2005.
When Fisk asked the court's permission to sell some of the works to raise money, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in New Mexico, which represents her estate, sued on grounds that the sale would violate the terms of O'Keeffe's gift.
Earlier this month, the judge in Tennessee rejected the settlement in that suit saying the offer from Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges might be a better deal for the school.
Professor ALAN WALLACH (Art History, College of William and Mary): She is out there as a constant temptation to institutions that are short of cash and have major artworks in their museums or in their collections.
ROSE: Alan Wallach teaches art history at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. He says Walton - who declined our request for an interview - is trying to buy first-rate art for Crystal Bridges and she's got the money to do it, reportedly sitting on a fortune worth at least $16 billion. Still, she's having a tough time.
Prof. WALLACH: The market in pre-1945 and actually post-1945 American art is very, very tight. Most of the important works are already in public collections.
ROSE: But there are a number of schools around the country holding significant works of art. One of them was Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. That school, too, faced financial pressures.
Robert Barchi is president of Jefferson. He says the medical school made a choice between housing an art collection and expanding its facilities.
Dr. ROBERT BARCHI (President, Thomas Jefferson University): We are not in a position to really display or curate works of art of this value. We don't have the appropriate kinds of humidity and temperature control. We don't have professional curatorial staff.
ROSE: Last year, Jefferson tried to sell its most famous painting - "The Gross Clinic" by Thomas Eakins - to Alice Walton for $68 million. But following howls of protest that the city was losing a cultural icon, a group of local museums raised the money to keep the painting in Philadelphia. Walton did manage to buy another major 19th-century American painting - Asher Durand's "Kindred Spirits" - from the New York Public Library. And that purchase, too, drew criticism.
Ms. BECCA BACON MARTIN (Art and Entertainment Editor, The Morning News): We wonder a little bit at the controversy, but I think that it's important that the art be seen.
ROSE: Becca Bacon Martin is art and entertainment editor at The Morning News in Springdale, Arkansas.
Ms. MARTIN: If Alice Walton is going to bring works of art that were not being seen so much, they were in a back hall in a library or they were in storage because gallery space wasn't available, if she's going to put them in a beautiful setting where everybody can see them, I don't see how that can be a bad thing.
ROSE: By the time Crystal Bridges opens, it may include another significant collection of American art, this one currently on display at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia.
In May, Alice Walton got a tour of the school's Maier Museum of Art from Ellen Agnew, who was then the museum's associate director.
Ms. ELLEN AGNEW (Former Associate Director, Maier Museum of Art): I believe she understood its importance as a collection and understood that, in a sense, she is trying to do now what Louise Jordan Smith did a hundred years ago.
ROSE: Louise Jordan Smith was a painter and the first art teacher at Randolph-Macon Woman's College, as it was known until this year when it went coed. Smith's vision was that art is a central part of a liberal arts education. When she died, Smith left a trust fund that's helped the college acquire significant works by other American painters, including Thomas Hart Benton and Edward Hopper. Those paintings hung in the college's residence halls until the school opened the Maier Museum in 1978.
Brenda Edson is a spokesperson for Randolph College.
Ms. BRENDA EDSON (Spokesperson, Randolph College): No one wants to have to do anything with our artwork. However, we are college first and our primary goal is to provide an education for students.
ROSE: The number of those students has been declining, and Randolph College is on warning from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to stop spending money out of its endowment to make up for falling revenues. But unlike cash-strapped Fisk University, Randolph College has an endowment of over $140 million.
Still, the school's trustees have asked a Virginia court for permission to amend Louise Jordan Smith's will, raising the possibility that the school will try to sell or share art from its collection. That led Maier Museum curator Ellen Agnew to quit in disgust over the summer and joined an alumni lawsuit aimed at blocking a possible sale.
Ms. AGNEW: The collection increasingly and almost exclusively now is being talked about in terms of its financial value. And what's kind of being left behind is its importance as an educational resource and as a cultural treasure.
ROSE: Lawyers for both sides are doing court November 15th. If Randolph College does get permission to sell its collection, historian Alan Wallach says, Alice Walton and her advisers will likely be there - checkbook in hand.
Prof. WALLACH: I think their view is that in the long run the controversies will be forgotten, and instead there will be a museum, which will be pretty much Alice Walton's creation and she'll be remembered for it.
ROSE: In much the same way, Wallach says, the captains of industry from earlier generations used their art collections to help launder the family name while it points to Henry Clay Frick, who turned his mansion on Fifth Avenue into a public museum.
Prof. WALLACH: If you ask most people in New York who is Frick, they won't say he was this robber baron. They will say, well, he's this wonderful benefactor of the city who created this terrific museum.
ROSE: Alice Walton may be hoping for the same reception when her Crystal Bridges Museum opens in 2009.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.