Fisk University plans to sell two paintings, including one by Georgia O'Keeffe, to fund new construction, endow teaching positions and improve security for the remaining paintings in its collection.
The O'Keeffe is her "Radiator Building -- Night, New York" from 1927 and is the signature work of the entire 101-piece collection. The second work is modernist Marsden Hartley's "Painting No. 3," a 1913 abstract oil on canvas.
Art dealers said the two works together on today's market could sell for $16 million to $20 million.
"This is big news," gallery owner Gerald Peters said from Santa Fe, N.M., where the renowned Georgia O'Keeffe Museum is located. "It's the kind of painting that could set a new record price."
Previous O'Keeffe paintings have sold for as much as $6.3 million, he said.
A sale would, for the first time, break up the collection given to Fisk by O'Keeffe herself in 1949 as the Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art. Besides paintings by O'Keeffe and photographs by Stieglitz, her husband, the collection includes works by Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec.
The sale will proceed pending a court decision to affirm that Fisk has the legal right to sell the works under certain conditions.
Fisk President Hazel R. O'Leary said she was originally inclined against the idea but realized that she had to be practical as the university faces financial challenges.
"It was a very difficult decision," she said. "I'm well aware that we're a good 20th-century school and need to be a great 21st-century school. We can't do that in an environment where you are strapped for cash every month."
Money from the sale will be used for construction of a new science building, the establishment of endowed chairs in business, science and mathematics, the replenishment of the school's endowment and security improvements at the Carl Van Vechten Gallery, which houses the collection on campus.
O'Keeffe is best known for her modernist paintings of flowers and the American West. She died in 1986.