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Judge halts transfer of O'Keeffe work

September 12, 2007|Erik Schelzig | Associated Press

NASHVILLE -- A judge here has rejected an agreement to send a 1927 oil painting by Georgia O'Keeffe from Fisk University to a New Mexico museum, saying the deal wasn't in the best interests of the state of Tennessee.

The painting, called "Radiator Building -- Night, New York," was part of a 1949 gift to the school from the estate of O'Keeffe's husband, famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

The historically black university had agreed to send the painting to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe for $7.5 million and the right to sell another prominent painting on the open market.

But Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle said Monday that a rival offer from a new museum to be opened by the daughter of the late Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, has better terms.

The settlement would have averted a trial scheduled for next week. Lyle acknowledged that the university runs a risk at trial because the New Mexico museum is asking for the entire 101-piece collection of works given to the university by Stieglitz to be transferred there. But it's a risk worth taking because of the rival offer, Lyle wrote.

"Beyond the financial security the Crystal Bridges' proposal provides to Fisk, the proposal gives the people of Tennessee more access to and Fisk the ability to display the important artwork 'Radiator Building,' " Lyle said in the ruling.

An attorney and a spokeswoman for the New Mexico museum did not return a call seeking comment. Fisk spokesman Ken West said the school is still reviewing Lyle's ruling.

Alice Walton, founder of the Crystal Bridges Museum, scheduled to open in 2009 in Bentonville, Ark., laid out a rival deal in an Aug. 24 letter to Tennessee Atty. Gen. Bob Cooper.

Under the Walton proposal, the museum would pay the school $30 million and the two entities would share a 50% stake in the 101-piece Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The collection would be displayed in Bentonville and Nashville on an equal-time basis.

Fisk University was founded in 1866 to educate former slaves, but the school has struggled throughout its history to raise money and nearly closed 20 years ago.

Fisk and the O'Keeffe Museum had argued that the proposed settlement presented the best opportunity to resolve the dispute. The museum had sued to prevent an earlier attempt by the school to sell paintings.

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