Fisk University is on the brink. The endowment of the tiny, historic school in Nashville, which opened its doors to newly freed slaves in 1865, is depleted. Every building on the campus where poet Nikki Giovanni, historian John Hope Franklin, and educator and activist W.E.B. Du Bois were educated has been mortgaged.
Fisk President Hazel R. O'Leary says that the only asset of real value left is the Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art. It is a $74 million trove of early modernist masterpieces that artist Georgia O'Keeffe donated to the school six decades ago. The art's presence at Fisk is a source of joy, consternation and dispute.
Fisk, which had slightly more than 800 undergraduate students in 2009, has tried to sell off parts of the expensive-to-maintain collection for years. The sale has been blocked by legal challenges, first by the O'Keeffe estate, then by the state of Tennessee. Georgia O'Keeffe, those opposed to a sale argue, saw the collection as a gift to Fisk and the people of the South, not as a cash machine from which to make withdrawals.
Tennessee Attorney General Bob Fisher wants the art to stay in Nashville, even if it means its removal from Fisk and exhibition elsewhere. The city's Frist Center for Visual Arts has offered its galleries to house the collection.
That would leave Fisk not only with no art-sale revenue but also with no Stieglitz art collection.