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Charles Demuth, “Calla Lilies” (1927) (courtesy Fisk Collection, via NashvilleArts)

Fisk University in Tennessee came up against a tough decision: faced with financial struggles, they saw an opportunity to keep the school afloat by selling their impressive collection of art, including work by Renoir, Picasso, Diego Rivera, and Cézanne.  However, all of this work had been given by Georgia O’Keeffe, who donated the collection, her late husband’s — the photographer Alfred Stieglitz — under the agreement that it never be sold or separated. After years of legal battles, those works will be going on display this fall at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which acquired a 50 percent stake in the collection for $30 million,  the Associated Press reported.

Back in Hyperallergic’s update from 2010 was a 2009 explanation appearing in USA Today on the sale’s stature as a huge financial move for Fisk, with the university’s attorney John Branham stating that “the latest appraisal of the collection indicated a value of about $75 million, which represents about half of Fisk’s total assets.” The sale to Crystal Bridges, which was initiated by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, met extensive controversy from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the Attorney General for Tennessee,  both arguing that no part of the collection should be sold in contravention of the gift’s intention.

Fisk student Edythe Paulin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and
Carl Van Vechten. (courtesy Fisk University Franklin Library’s Special Collections)

The collection was one of six gifts O’Keeffe made following the death of her husband, joining others to the National Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Library of Congress. Alongside those imposing institutions, little Fisk University (whose enrollment is in the hundreds) in Nashville, Tennessee came as a surprise. However, drawn by encouragement from the writer Carl Van Vechten, O’Keeffe gave the gift of 101 pieces “in recognition of the school’s mission to educate blacks at a time when Southern universities remained segregated,” according to the New York Times.

“Each one of the six gifts she carefully selected what was appropriate for each institution,” Kevin Murphy, curator of American art at Crystal Bridges, told the Associated Press. “We want to maintain that kind of respect for her selection process.”

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Le Chapeau Épingle (The Hat Pin)” (1898), color lithograph on paper (courtesy Fisk Collection, via NashvilleArts)

Now, although Fisk University maintains the right to display it two of every four years, it will no longer remain on permanent display in its current home, in the university’s Carl Van Vechten Gallery. Here’s a complete list of works in the collection — including pieces from Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, as well as Henri de Toulouse-Lautric, Paul Signac, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove. These will now be partly owned by the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas (also the hometown of Wal-Mart). The museum, which opened in 2011, has been incredibly ambitious in acquiring art, including  spending $35 million on an Asher B. Durand painting from the New York Public Library in 2005, and an estimated $25 million on a Rothko in 2012, to put the Stieglitz aquisition in perspective. Hopefully, amid its rapid expansion to have the best of art history, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s thoughtful bequest won’t get lost amid the museum’s visual ambitions.

The Alfred Stieglitz Collection will be on display at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art (600 Museum Way) in Bentonville, Arkansas from November 9, 2013 to February 14, 2014.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

One reply on “Long-Disputed Stieglitz Collection To Be Unveiled This Fall”

  1. I need more information about why these “legal battles” resulted in a decision to invalidate the terms of the bequest. It seems like a bad precedent to me. I guess more thought needs to be given to this type of bequest since collections may outlast institutions. Should an institution that fails be rewarded in cash from a plundered bequest?

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