Lindsay Pollock takes a trip to Fisk College to tell the story of the controversial Crystal Bridges deal. Though it would appear that Pollock is advocating for the deal as she writes a highly sympathetic tale of a college seeking to fulfill its mission by maximizing the value of its assets in a way that benefits both the college and the increasingly important Crystal Bridges Museum. Here’s Pollock’s description of Fisk, the Stieglitz collection that Georgia O’Keeefe donated and the compromise:
The approximately 650-square foot gallery, installed in an elegant 1889 brick building which once served as Fisk’s gymnasium, has been closed over the summer while a flurry of improvements were completed, including a fresh coat of white paint, a new sleek bamboo floor and more than twenty security cameras, protecting 101 artworks appraised at $75 million.
Fisk, a black college founded in 1866, with a current enrollment of 800 students, and a rich, little-known collection of 4,000 artworks by African-American artists—sculptor Martin Puryear once taught at the school—presents a far bleaker financial picture.
The university, whose academic reputation is strongest in the sciences, uses a retrofitted dorm for science labs. The university’s aging campus requires some $20 million in deferred maintenance, according to an estimate by Fisk’s Vice President for Administrative Services. In recent times the university has run an annual $2 million deficit, according to Ken West, Fisk’s director of communications. Ninety-two percent of all Fisk students, most of whom are the first in their families to attend college, receive some financial aid to afford the $20,000 tuition.
Fisk’s president Hazel R. O’Leary, a former U.S. Secretary of Energy and Fisk alumni, was hired in 2004. She has given the school a measure of stability, and worked to overhaul the university’s financial systems. The chance Fisk might go bust was, and is, overwhelming. In a controversial bid to raise quick money, Fisk’s board approved the sale of some or all of the Stieglitz Collection in December 2005.
Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, the founder of Crystal Bridges, an American art museum under construction in Bentonville, Arkansas, hatched a compromise: a plan to buy a half share in Fisk’s Stieglitz collection. The art would remain at Fisk for two years, and then be installed in Bentonville for two years. The relationship has already begun. Fisk students have served as interns at Crystal Bridges. For some at Fisk, an allegiance with billionaire Walton is hugely appealing.
The museum and art community, however, have strenuously objected to this plan, along with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Fisk is battling in courts for permission to consummate the Walton deal. […]
The Van Vechten Gallery has been re-hung by Fisk’s charismatic director, Victor Simmons, who has curated a dramatic presentation. “You have to always manage a collection, which is always, at the end of the day, a dollars and cents thing,’’ said Simmons, who said he will cope if the Stieglitz collection is shared. He said he is custodian of the most encyclopedic collection of African American art in the country, which Fisk began acquiring in the 1930s—including works by Beauford Delaney, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden—and is focused on the university’s survival. “If that is the ultimate solution, we will all have to move on with it.”
On the Road: Nashville’s Fisk University (LindsayPollock.com)