Thursday, November 29, 2007

What is the O'Keeffe Museum Thinking?

Photo courtesy of Fisk University

This is a tale of what I consider to be very bad behavior by the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

The History

In 1949, Georgia O'Keeffe divided the art estate of her late husband Alfred Stieglitz among a number of institutions. One of the recipients was Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee. The school received 101 paintings from O'Keeffe including her own Radiator Building--Night, New York, painted in 1927, and a number of other valuable works.

Like many small private colleges, Fisk has struggled financially in recent years. Protection and display of the valuable art collection was always an issue--O'Keeffe paid to send the entire collection sent to New York for restoration in the 1970s, and before her death donated tens of thousands of dollars for maintenance of Fisk's Van Vechten Gallery and the donated works.

But the gallery was a building constructed in 1888 and formerly used as a gymnasium; the college was no longer able to guarantee protection of the works there and the paintings were put in storage at the Frist Center for Visual Arts in Nashville in November 2005.

The following month, Fisk sought to sell Radiator Building, its most valuable painting, along with Painting No. 3 by Marsden Hartley. The sale of these two works would, the college believed, allow it construct a new science building, make needed campus repairs, replenish its hemorrhaging endowment, and appropriately protect and display the other 99 pieces of art, which include works by Picasso, Renoir, and others.

Listen to the details in this 2005 NPR story.

The Dog in the Manger

Shortly afterwards, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe stepped on stage in this deal. The Museum got involved by virtue of the dissolution of the O'Keeffe Foundation in May 2005; the Foundation turned over all its assets to the Museum and asked that the Museum "step into its shoes" to protect the Stieglitz gift to Fisk. So the Museum started legal action to block the sale of the paintings, stating that Fisk was violating the terms of O'Keeffe's gift to the school.

And the Attorney General of Tennessee also became a party to this deal, representing the people of Tennessee, for whom these works were characterized as a cultural asset.

Christie's had appraised the O'Keeffe for $8.5 million in 2005, and the O'Keeffe Museum offered Fisk $7 million for the painting. A Tennessee judge gave the school 30 days to see if they could get a better offer that would allow them to keep the work in Tennessee. The judge eventually nixed the deal with the O'Keeffe Museum in April 2007. Several offers of $20 million or more had been received for the painting at this point, although none met the "undisclosed requirements negotiated between the university and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum." But clearly $7 million was not a good deal for Fisk and Tennessee.

By August of this year, the Museum had agreed to drop the lawsuit, buy Radiator Building for $7.5 million, and give Fisk "permission" (how does that work?!?) to sell the Hartley on the open market. The Museum also agreed that if they sold the O'Keeffe within 20 years they would give Fisk half of any profits (wow--what generosity! And how do they get to sell it if they won't let Fisk sell it?), that they would lend the painting back to Fisk for 4 months every 4 years, and give them a high quality reproduction to use in the meantime. In wonderful lawyer-speak, the Fisk attorney noted that this was "not a sale--just a lawsuit settlement".

Alice in Museumland

Photo courtesy of Marshall/Star Telegram/SIPA

But while the settlement agreement was pending, Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton offered Fisk a new deal. She would give them $30 million for a 50% stake in the entire collection. The works would be displayed half-time in the new Crystal Bridges museum she is building in Bentonville, Arkansas, and at Fisk the other half. The terms of the offer would also include $1 million for Fisk to renovate and upgrade their art gallery, as well as an art internship for a Fisk student. This seemed to me to be a real win-win offer--Fisk would get the money they needed, the paintings would stay in the South, the collection would be kept intact, and Fisk and the citizens of Nashville would have access to the paintings half the time. (This is in contrast to no access, which is the current state of affairs, since the paintings are in storage and not on display.)

With the Walton offer on the table, a Nashville judge vetoed the O'Keeffe Museum offer as detrimental to the interests of the people of Tennessee.

You Go, Hazel!

Photo courtesy of US Department of Energy

In October, the O'Keeffe Museum asked that the Tennessee judge block the deal with Walton. This was clearly not good news for Fisk. According to a 10/17/07 New York Times article by Theo Emery, "Fisk's president, Hazel O'Leary, said the university was being 'held hostage' by the litigation. 'Their intention is to bleed us to death,' she said. 'They know that time is not on our side here.'"

The O'Keeffe Museum now wanted (are you ready for this?) the entire collection removed from Fisk's control and sent to New Mexico.


1950 photograph by Carl Van Vechten, for whom the Fisk art gallery is named.

So what would Georgia O'Keeffe do? This seems to be at the heart of the various legal arguments. A trial is scheduled for February to decide whether Fisk's agreement to share the collection with Walton's Crystal Bridges (which is scheduled to open in 2009) is close enough to O'Keeffe's wishes to be approved.

On Tuesday of this week, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen weighed in on the issue. According to an article in the Tennessean, he is quoted as saying: "As a businessperson, I would be very concerned at the deal Fisk has cut with the museum in Arkansas." Bredesen says that estimates from art experts and insurers indicate the collection "could easily be worth $150 million. And $30 million for half of it is not a very good deal."

Crystal Bridges executive director Bob Workman says the price reflects the restrictions placed on the collection by O'Keeffe. "This is a creative, long-term way to satisfy Ms. O'Keeffe's demand that the collection remain intact, to provide needed funds for Fisk University and to keep this historic collection in the public domain."

Amen to that, I say. Fisk says that they may have to close in 2008 if the deal is not approved. They have mortgaged all of their buildings and other loan options have been exhausted.

Imagine how much money has been spent by lawyers on this case over the past two years--probably enough to keep Fisk open for a number of years to come. And it is hard for me to imagine that Georgia O'Keeffe would have wanted Fisk to close, or would have approved her namesake museum's attempt to hijack the work(s). In a 1949 article in the New York Times at the time of the original bequests from Stieglitz's estate, she stated that "after 25 years, the (pictures) can be sold if the institutions have no further use for them." What's not clear about that?

Friday, November 23, 2007

First Snow of the Season

Woke up this morning to see grey skies and several inches of snow on the ground. The temperature has been just about 30 degrees all day--with on and off spitting snow.

This shot was taken from my living room through my brand new sliding glass doors with incredibly clear new glass!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Movie Update

I've had lots of hits on this blog with folks looking for information on Renée Zellweger and the filming of Appaloosa in Santa Fe. After my first post on this subject, I did not have any personal encounters with this movie, or anything to post that wasn't already covered in the Santa Fe New Mexican. According to that publication, Santa Fe filming wrapped up last week, and Renée (according to folks who encountered her) was lovely, friendly, and a generous tipper during her stay in Santa Fe.

This week's report concerns the local filming of Brothers, which, according to the New Mexican (clearly my favorite source for local movie news!), is "a remake of a Danish flick featuring 'a man who is sent to fight in Afghanistan while his black-sheep brother cares for his wife and child.'" Sound stage work is taking place on campus at the Garson Studios, shown above.

Purportedly, the trailers shown in the photo below are the (drumroll, please) ACTUAL TRAILERS where the stars (Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Natalie Portman) hang out when they're not on set. No actual star sightings yet, but the campus is abuzz!

Monday, November 12, 2007


Labyrinths are very popular in Santa Fe; I had never walked a labyrinth before I came here (if you don't count playing "jellyroll" hopscotch!) and I have walked four in the year and a half since I arrived. There is one in front of St. Francis Cathedral that is laid in cut stone in the style of the one at Chartres--that's next on my list!

(Click here if you want to learn about the difference between a labyrinth and a maze.)

Yesterday I was invited to attend a celebration of a new labyrinth in my friend Susannah's yard. After we were "smudged" with the scent of burning herbs, and had seen the labyrinth blessed by a local celebrant, my friend Elaine led us through the walk. There are 7 circuits in Susannah's labyrinth--it's a Celtic pattern. Each circuit has been laid with a different color of natural stone to loosely correspond to the red-violet spectrum, with pink stone in the center.

It was a beautiful afternoon; we finished with a potluck supper in the late day sun.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Allan Houser, Sculptor

Last month I was lucky enough to go with a group on a private guided tour of the Allan Houser Compound and Sculpture Garden, just outside Santa Fe. On the grounds there is a museum/gallery, a bronze foundry, meeting rooms, the home where Houser's elderly widow still resides, and many trails with the beautiful sculptures (largely of Native American figures) created by Allan Houser.

There are only a few "open to visitors" days each year, but guided tours are available to groups by appointment--if you're in, or near Santa Fe, I highly recommend this visit; go to the Allan Houser website for more information. Our wonderful guide gave us a word portrait of Houser's life which was extremely evocative and touching; then walked us around the grounds pointing out various pieces of interest and telling us Houser's artistic biography at the same time.

When I saw the phenomenal output of this talented artist (who, incidentally, created most of his remarkable body of work after he "retired" at 61, until his death in 1994), I wondered how it was possible I had never heard of him--even many Santa Fe folk don't know about him.

Houser (whose original family name was Haozous) was born into the Chiricahua Apache tribe in 1914. His father, Sam Haozous, was with Geronimo's band when he surrendered to the US Army in 1886 in Mexico. Members of the tribe were held as prisoners of war for the next 27 years in Florida, Alabama, and Oklahoma. Allan was born shortly after his parents' release--the first child born to a tribe member after the Chiricahua were released from captivity. Click here to read Allan's full biography.

Here are some of the sculptures I photographed against the beautiful New Mexico skies.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Oh You Red Sox!

I was in Boston last weekend (during the last couple of games of the World Series) and saw this banner at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Mrs. Gardner (aka "Mrs. Jack") was a colorful and influential Bostonian in the first quarter of the 20th century.

The website offers the following quick summary:

When the death of her two-year-old son (1865) was followed by a miscarriage, she and her husband went to Europe. After they returned (1868), ‘Mrs Jack’ soon established herself as the most flamboyant and sought-after hostess in Boston. At first her energies went into entertaining, interior decoration, gardening, travelling, and collecting friends and odds-and-ends, but by the late 1880s she set out seriously to collect great art. Assisted by (and subsidizing) Bernard Berenson, newly graduated from Harvard College, she began to purchase mainly works of the European Renaissance. To house her growing collection, she built an ambitious Italianate palazzo, Fenway Court. Incorporated as the semi-private Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (1902), it was opened to the first select guests in 1903. She continued to add objects over the next few years, and stipulated that everything must stay exactly where she placed it.

Fenway Court is, not surprisingly, located on The Fenway (the street that runs along part of the Fenway Park, which itself is part of the Emerald Necklace--a linear park that runs through Boston and was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead). The park was completed in 1895--just before Isabella started building her "palace" there.

And also, not surprisingly, the Red Sox's Fenway Park is right around the corner! Fenway was constructed in time for the 1912 baseball season, and Isabella was a huge fan. Later that year, according to a press release from the ISG Museum:

Red Sox fan and Gardner Museum creator Isabella Stewart Gardner celebrated the Red Sox championship win over the New York Giants in unique fashion – attending a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance at Symphony Hall wearing a white headband with the words “Oh, you Red Sox!” in red letters, an act that prompted one reporter to describe her as a “woman...gone crazy.”