Fisk University Looks to Raise Money by Selling Art It Is Not Supposed to Sell

In 1949 artist Georgia O’Keeffe, known for her large paintings of flowers, donated her husband’s extensive art collection to Fisk University, the highly regarded historically black educational institution in Nashville, Tennessee. The 101-piece collection, which included many of O’Keeffe’s paintings, was donated with several conditions. The recipient was required to give the public access to the collection and also to promote the study of art. The agreement also stipulated that the color of the walls in the gallery in which the art was displayed had to be white. One final requirement was that Fisk could not “at any time sell or exchange any of the objects in the collection.”

Now more than half a century later, Fisk University wants to sell two pieces from the collection valued at about $20 million. Fisk hopes to use the money for new construction projects, endowed teaching positions, and to improve security for the remaining works of the collection. Fisk contends that it cannot properly maintain the collection with its available funds. In a filing with the chancery court Fisk states that to "secure and maintain the collection is overly burdensome for an institution in its fiscal condition."

Renowned historian John Hope Franklin, a graduate of Fisk, believes the university is doing the right thing. "The need for Fisk to increase its capacity to fulfill its mission is more important than any single asset that the university may hold, no matter how cherished that asset may be," Professor Franklin said.

But the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation is attempting to block any sale, calling on the court to respect O'Keeffe's original conditions governing the donation.


Copyright © 2006. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. All rights reserved.