College Argues For the Right To Sell Art Gifts To Raise Capital

By Bravetta Hassell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Just what obligation does a school have to hold on to its gifts of artwork?

It's a question that Fisk University has been grappling with for months as it seeks to sell two paintings from its Alfred Stieglitz Collection to raise much-needed funds. At the moment, however, its plans have succeeded only in raising the ire of some art lovers.

The Nashville school is awaiting a court ruling on whether it can sell a Georgia O'Keeffe painting and a Marsden Hartley painting, both part of the 101-piece collection, which was donated to the historically black college nearly 60 years ago by Stieglitz's widow -- O'Keeffe herself.

The collection also includes works by such artists as Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso, Arthur Dove and John Marin, as well as some of Stieglitz's photography. According to an IRS filing, Fisk's entire art collection was appraised at $31.4 million in 2002.

"I'm sorry that it has come to this, but I support the president in this decision," Denise Billye Sanders, chairwoman of Fisk's General Alumni Association, says of the move by school President Hazel O'Leary. "We're selling to keep the rest of our collection."

O'Keeffe's "Radiator Building -- Night, New York" and "Painting No. 3" by Hartley could fetch as much as $20 million if sold privately, speculates Gerald Peters, president of the Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M., which has sold Hartley paintings comparable to "No. 3."

"[They] could easily bring in 10 million each," says Peters, predicting that "Radiator Building" could break a record set by Christie's, which sold O'Keeffe's "Calla Lilies With Red Anemone" for $6.1 million in 2001.

Fisk plans to use the funds to construct an academic building, endow professorships and improve the security at the gallery that holds the remaining collection, says O'Leary, a former U.S. secretary of energy.

"When I got here, it was clear to me that in order to manage well, you have to have enough capital," says O'Leary, who's been at Fisk for two years. The school's financial troubles have existed for decades, and because there are 11 Hartley paintings in the Stieglitz collection, "to let one go continues to make sense," she says. "Radiator Building," which she called an "iconoclastic piece," is the more valuable of the collection's two O'Keeffe paintings.

Funds from the sale also would help rebuild the school's endowment, drawn down twice in the four years before O'Leary's arrival, says Fisk spokesman Ken West. The endowment is valued at about $15 million, he says.

Since the withdrawals totaling $7.7 million, various pieces of art from the Stieglitz Collection have been listed as part of the endowment to make up the difference.

But to fix financial troubles by selling famous artworks received as a gift?

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