Art Law: O’Keeffe Works Fate Unknown

"Radiator Building -- Night, New York."  AP Photo/Fisk University.
"Radiator Building -- Night, New York." AP Photo/Fisk University.

Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, Georgia O’Keeffe gifted 101 paintings to Fisk University, subject to the conditions that the pieces could not be sold and that certain works must be displayed together.  In 2005, Fisk University filed an action in Tennessee Circuit Court, seeking a declaratory judgment that it be allowed to reform the O’Keeffe gift because the University could not afford to maintain the collection.  

Fisk had reached an agreement with the Crystal Bridges Museum of Arkansas to sell a one-half interest in the entire collection and give the museum the right to display the collection 6 months out of the year.  Fisk sought approval from the court to violate the terms of the original gift.  Soon after, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum of New Mexico, successor to the O’Keeffe estate, intervened in the case seeking to block reformation of the original gift.

The O’Keeffe Museum succeeded in circuit court and Fisk’s sale was blocked.  This week, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed and held that the O’Keeffe Museum did not have standing to contest the request for declaratory relief.  The Court also found that the doctrine of cy pres was available.  Cy Pres allows the recipients of charitable gifts to change the nature or terms of the gift if it becomes unfulfillable for some reason.  The Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the circuit court to determine if reformation of O’Keeffe’s original gift was appropriate. 

The question now becomes, what is the fate of Fisk’s collection of O’Keeffe works?  Fisk is apparently struggling financially, and has found very deep pockets in The Crystal Bridges Museum, established by Wal-Mart heiress, Alice Walton.  It will be up to the trial court to determine how far Fisk will be allowed to go when parcelling off its collection in order to raise funds.  This author hopes that at least the collection stays together, even if it is displayed at different locations throughout the year.

Full Opinion from the Tennesse Court of Appeals.

More information on the Crystal Bridges – Museum of American Art, opening in late 2009.

Fisk University Art Galleries.


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