Facing Financial Collapse, Fisk University Quietly Sold Off Two Major Paintings In 2010

The Carl Van Vechten gallery is home to the Stieglitz collection half the time; the other half, it's housed in Arkansas. Credit: TONY GONZALEZ / WPLN

The Carl Van Vechten gallery is home to the Stieglitz collection half the time; the other half, it’s housed in Arkansas. Credit: TONY GONZALEZ / WPLN

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While Fisk University was fighting a drawn-out legal battle over the fate of a high-profile art collection, it quietly sold two other paintings in the school’s archives. That twist in the story was first reported Tuesday in the New York Times.

Former Fisk president Hazel O’Leary spent nearly a decade battling the courts, art lovers and alumni over whether a university that was deeply in debt could raise money by selling off two paintings donated by Georgia O’Keeffe as part of the Alfred Stieglitz collection. Ultimately, the Tennessee attorney general stepped in to block the sale.

But in 2010, the school sold two other paintings: one by Florine Stettheimer, the other by Rockwell Kent. The final decision was made by O’Leary and Fisk’s board of trustees “with the best interest of Fisk University in mind,” according to a statement from the university.

Ken West, a former Fisk spokesman who worked closely with O’Leary, says he doesn’t believe it was intentionally kept quiet.

“It might be new to some, but it’s definitely not new, and I don’t think it’s earth-shattering if you consider the financial condition the university was in at the time,” he says.

Universities often come under fire by the art world for selling high-dollar possessions when they’re in financial trouble. West says that point of view lacks context.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Don’t sell the painting because it has a rich tradition and it’s very important’ — and that’s very true,” he says. “But I want the same people who are critical to tell these first-generation students that they can’t come back next year because there are no funds to provide them a scholarship.”

West calls the decision to sell these paintings a “last resort.”

Fisk University wouldn’t disclose the amount of money it received for the paintings. The art dealer who facilitated the sale, Patrick Albano of Aaron Galleries in Illinois, tells WPLN that the two pieces sold for more than half a million dollars each.

As for the art donated by Georgia O’Keefe, even though Fisk couldn’t sell it, the school ended up making a deal to split the ownership of the Alfred Stieglitz collection with a museum in Arkansas for $30 million.

In a written statement, interim president Frank Sims says the university has “thrived in a number of ways” since then. After being put on probation by its accrediting body, Fisk was put back on solid footing in late 2013.

“This year marks the 150th anniversary of Fisk University,” Sims writes. “We have celebrated our many accomplishments, including the re-opening of the Carl Van Vechten Gallery, the return of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern Art, an increase in university enrollment, and the addition of a Fulbright scholar to the Fisk faculty, among other accomplishments.”

This story was originally published on July 27, 2016.

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