Monday 5 December 2011

Show me the money ...

Radiator Building - Night, New York
Fisk University, Tennessee has in recent years found itself in a position that will be familiar to many art-owning institutions. It's strapped for cash and wants to use its art collection to make money - but the law has been putting spanners in the works.

The story began in 1949, when painter Georgia O'Keeffe gave Fisk a 101-piece collection of artworks, most belonging to her late husband Alfred Stieglitz and including her own iconic 1927 painting, Radiator Building - Night, New York. She stipulated that the collection was not to be sold, and should remain intact.

Fifty years later the Nashville-based university was facing something of a financial crisis. In response, its president Hazel O'Leary hatched a plan to sell both Radiator Building and a second work, Painting No. 3 by Marsden Hartley (two of the most valuable paintings in the collection) to bolster the university's funds. But the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, which represents the artist's estate, sued to prevent the sale since it was in breach of the terms of the gift.

Then in autumn 2007 Fisk began negotiations with Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. The deal they drew up would see Crystal Bridges take a 50% stake in the collection, and Fisk receive US$30m in return.

But this idea was initially blocked in the courts too. It was even argued that Fisk should forfeit the whole collection to the O'Keeffe Museum for having violated the terms of the gift by removing some items from display and attempted to sell others. It was held in early 2008 that although the terms had indeed been violated, Fisk would nonetheless be able to retain the collection. 

Later the Crystal Bridges deal was accepted by the court, but with the proviso that US$20m of the sale proceeds must be retained as an endowment for the upkeep of the collection. Finally, last week a Tennessee appeals court ruled that no such endowment was necessary (although it may still attach other conditions to the deal).

Deaccessioning artworks in order to pay the bills has been equally controversial in the UK in recent years. In 1993 for example Royal Holloway sold a Turner in its collection for £11m and received a barrage of abuse. In 2007 Bury Council raised £1.4m by selling off a Lowry to a private collector, and lost its status as an accredited museum with the Museums Association.

However impoverished an institution, selling its artworks is rarely deemed an acceptable solution by the art world and the press, even if it is legally possible to do so. But for Fisk, the Crystal Bridges deal would be a lifeline, according to president O'Leary. The university runs at an annual deficit of US$2m and has already mortgaged all its buildings. And the upkeep of O'Keeffe's collection costs US$131,000 a year. When asked if Fisk was viable without extra financing, O'Leary replied, 'No, not at all.'

An art collection should not exist to be dipped into whenever funds run low. Such an attitude can be a disincentive to donors both of funds and of art, encourage a lack of initiative in fundraising, and undermine collections' existence as cultural and scholarly resources. But is it always the wrong thing to do? Fisk seems a good example to the contrary. The highly regarded institution, through no lack of effort, has not been able to fund itself effectively. O'Keeffe's magnificent gift has become a liability and Fisk has been unable to show it or look after it effectively. It does not intend to send the collection into private hands, nor to anyone who cannot take adequate care of it (Crystal Bridges is certainly not short of money with Wal-Mart behind it). In such circumstance, it is surely the the right choice to sell part ownership, rather than that Fisk should retain a collection it can't look after and cripple itself in doing so.

Read more at The Tennessean, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post.

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