Art history contains innumerable mysteries. Who was the model for the Mona Lisa? Who pulled off the Stewart Gardner heist? And no one knows for certain why Georgia O’Keeffe donated a portion of her husband Alfred Stieglitz’ art collection to tiny Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The gift, made in 1949, was heavy on early American modernists which the famed photographer and art dealer prized including O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and John Marin. It also featured the biggest names in European modernism like Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
While these figures didn’t carry the same weight then as they do now, nevertheless, the collection would have been greatly prized by any of hundreds of larger institutions across America or Europe. And it was. O’Keeffe split the collection between multiple museums, also sending pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Library of Congress.
Why she also portioned material to Fisk, an historically black university which even today has only 800 students, she would simply tell New York Times Magazine in December of 1949, “because I think it is a good thing to do at this time and that it would please Stieglitz.“
“What we do know is that (O’Keeffe) was dear, dear friends with Carl Van Vechten, a music and theater critic and also a close friend of Charles S. Johnson, who was the first African-American president of Fisk,” Jamaal B. Sheats, Director and Curator of Galleries and Assistant Professor of Art at Fisk University, told me. “After Stieglitz’ death, it’s Carl Van Vechten who is the one who called and actually made the ask to donate it to Fisk.”
The details of that conversation are lost to history, but whatever he said, it worked.
O’Keeffe would subsequently gift Fisk additional resources for the care and preservation of the art she donated.
Fisk and Crystal Bridges now co-own the artworks and swap exhibiting the Stieglitz Collection on two-year rotations. Under a unique partnership, each institution owns half of all 101 pieces. The backstory for this arrangement is not in doubt as it received a great deal of media attention.
A seven-year legal battle launched by Tennessee’s Attorney General challenged the half ownership sale of the collection by Fisk on the grounds that the sale would violate O’Keeffe’s wishes for the donation. A judge ultimately ruled in favor of Fisk in 2012 and the sale went through.
Previous Fisk University President Hazel O’Leary said the sale kept the university open during a protracted period of financial hardship.
The purchase price was $30 million. A heady figure indeed, but hardly out of reach for Crystal Bridges which opened in 2011, endowed with a $1.2 billion operating, acquisition and capital improvements budget, provided by the Walton Family Foundation. Crystal Bridges was created by Walmart heiress Alice Walton. Walmart is headquartered in Bentonville.
Crystal Bridges has spent more than $30 million on an individual painting. It acquired O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed/White Flower #1” for $44 million in 2014. That remains the most money ever spent at auction for the work of a female artist.
With a vast ocean of resources, the well-heeled Crystal Bridges makes a perfect partner for the bootstrapped Fisk University whose art galleries total two full time employees. The partnership extends beyond exhibition and care for the Stieglitz Collection.
Fisk benefits from inclusion in the “Art Bridges” program, also founded by Alice Walton, which lends outstanding works of American Art to institutions with limited access to the nation’s most meaningful works. Fisk’s Museum Leadership Program has also received funding from The Walton Family Foundation and Ford Foundation’s Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative.
“Crystal Bridges has helped us train the next generation of art leaders through our program,” Sheats said. “In May (2019), they were our collections management module where (students) met with staff from collections management, curatorial, exhibition design, they learned different aspects of the field through their staff–they just have a much broader capacity.”
To learn more about the photography of Alfred Stieglitz, click here.