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Fisk University's finances in dire straits, at odds with Tennessee state attorney

Stephon Johnson | 4/12/2011, 5:26 p.m.

The oldest private Black university in America is battling the state of Tennessee to free itself from financial troubles.

Recently, Fisk University attempted to sell their stake of the late Georgia O'Keeffe's art collection, but their attempt was blocked by a judge because it would breach the terms of agreement that the collection was donated upon. While Fisk's financial issues have been a story for a few years, it's now capturing the public eye.

Fisk's vice president of communications and public relations, Ken West, believes the O'Keeffe name has shined light on the historically Black institution of higher learning. "It's actually been out there for a number of years, just sort of lingering in philanthropic circles and art circles," said West when speaking with the AmNews. "I think what really brought it out was [Tennessee] State Attorney General Robert Cooper's proposal [filed with the Davidson County Chancery Court] to take the collection from Fisk, which would have been, as far as I know, an unprecedented move for a state to take property from an institution."

When asked if the state had offered Fisk an alternative way to increase funds, West said, "No."

West also pointed to a statement made on behalf of the university that was released a couple of weeks ago addressing the state of Tennessee's proposed actions against the university.

"Fisk is understandably outraged at this proposal," read the statement. "For one thing, as stated above, Fisk has just spent over $1 million to renovate and improve the Van Vechten Gallery. For another, the attorney general's proposal entirely misses the point. Fisk does not need the $150,000 or so it takes each year to exhibit the art. It has and will continue to allocate funds for that purpose.

"Its problem is the $1 million to $2 million shortfall each year in its operations. That cannot go on, and without the cash infusion, Fisk will inevitably close. When it closes, it will then be unable to care for the collection, but not until then. Its purpose in proposing the sharing arrangement is to prevent its closure.

"Fisk is adamantly opposed to the attorney general's proposal and calls on Nashville to reject this outrageous taking of private property," the statement continued. "Taking full control of an art collection, valued at $74 million in 2007, without the payment of any funds to Fisk amounts to nothing less than a theft of the art from Fisk."

West also expressed incredulity at the state of Tennessee, considering that the proceedings are operating under New York law and not Tennessee law.

"This entire case is actually under New York law because the art collection was given by Alfred Stieglitz, who was a New Yorker and all of his estate came from New York to Tennessee," West told the AmNews. "But there is a precedent where conditions on gifts have been lifted."

While the university finds itself in a crisis with their finances and with the state of Tennessee, West said that the institution still has their eyes on the proverbial prize and believes that with increased involvement from the Fisk faithful, they'll prevail.

"All I know is that Fisk has an opportunity to invest in itself for the future and this is a great part of our plan," said West. "We are definitely making every effort we can. Our students are engaged and our alumni are engaged, and we are not in it to lose."