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Steven Lubar AMCV 2650: Introduction to Public Humanities November 9, 2011 Research Paper Proposal: “Who’s Art?: Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation (Museum) v. Fisk University” My research paper will examine the ongoing legal battle between the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and Fisk University. The story begins in the 1940s and 1950s, when Georgia O’Keeffe declared that 101 pieces of art from the collection of her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz, would be displayed in the new art gallery at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, TN. In legal terms, this was a permanent charitable gift but it came with several important restrictions: Fisk could never sell any of the art, and all 101 pieces must be permanently displayed as one collection. As the financial health of Fisk gradually declined over the following decades, the University stopped being able to afford to care for and display the art. In the early 2000s, several University administrators saw a solution. If they sold two paintings to Alice Walton, and sent the rest of the collection on temporary loan to her new Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, the transactions could rescue Fisk from financial ruin and ensure the protection of the collection. In 2005, Fist University filed an ex parte complaint with the state of Tennessee for permission to sell the paintings. One of the paintings, Radiator Building – Night, New York, was by Georgia O’Keeffe herself, which prompted the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, the inheritors of her estate, to bring legal action against Fisk. In the various court cases that have followed, Fisk University has attempted to use the cy pres doctrine to justify the legal sale of various pieces of the collection, stating that Georgia O’Keeffe’s charitable gift was “as near as possible” to general, rather than specific, charitable intent. This doctrine gives the court the authority to amend the conditions of a charitable gift in

Harbison 2 order to restore the original intent of the donation. Fisk contends that Georgia O’Keeffe donated the paintings in order to help bolster the financial strength of the institution, and therefore the University’s current dire situation calls for them to reassess the best possible uses of the gift. The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation argues that the gift came with specific conditions that it must always be displayed, and never sold, lest Fisk forfeit their rights to curate the material. In the most recent trial, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee ruled to reverse the lower court decision and remand the case back to the trial court to determine the appropriate usage of the cy pres doctrine. Although much about the case has yet to be determined, the Appellate Court’s decision means the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation never had standing to take Fisk to trial over this issue, and they will therefore be permanently excluded from any future court proceedings. My paper will explore the various legal arguments used by both sides in this case, and assess their meaning for the rest of the museum world. The two foundations are interestingly not the only players in this battle. Between appeals, the Attorney General of Tennessee stepped in as a third party of concern, arguing that no matter what happens, the paintings must stay in Tennessee. As the protector of charitable gifts in the state, the Attorney General does not want the Crystal Bridges Museum to take the collection to Arkansas, nor does it want the Georgia O’Keefe Foundation to seize the art and take it back to New Mexico. Although her role in the litigation remains unofficial, Alice Walton is also a key player in this story. She has received vitriolic criticism in the art world for her predatory collecting, even earning the nick name, “the culture vulture,” as she buys up art from struggling institutions like Fisk. Part of my paper will discuss Ms. Walton’s role in all of this, determining whether she is doing something unethical, or merely following in the footsteps of other rich American families like the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Rockefellers, and the Chryslers. After all, the Crystal

Harbison 3 Bridges Museum will be free and open to the public, and it will serve a population that has thus far not had much access to great works of art. At the same time, I wonder, what will happen to Nashville? The art at Fisk is by far the best collection in the city, and without it the community could start to feel a cultural drain. My paper will seek to explain all sides of the story, and ultimately propose a compromise that could placate everyone who is involved. Although the judges will make their decisions based on legal terms and precedents, for the public this case clearly brings out the more emotional issues concerning public ownership of the past and cultural heritage. In addition to the legal briefs, press coverage, and blogs expressing public opinions of the various trials, my sources will include many of the readings from the class, including Derek Gillman’s The Idea of Cultural Heritage and Hilda Hein’s Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently. Several chapters in Carol Duncan’s Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums will provide a useful theoretical framework for interpreting this case study. I also plan to explore sources concerning the history of museum collecting and what those collections have come to mean to the various communities in which they are displayed. I am considering exploring some parallel case studies at other institutions that have experienced legal or more informal objections to their attempts to sell art and objects, such as Brandeis University and the Providence Athenaeum. Though I am sure my personal opinions on these issues will evolve as I continue my research, I anticipate forming an argument that emphasizes the importance of keeping cultural heritage accessible to the largest possible public audience.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, The Radiator Building, 1927 nowpublic.com

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