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The Associated Press August 13, 2010, 8:35AM ET

Fisk head says school needs to sell art to survive

Fisk University President Hazel O'Leary testified Thursday that the school may be forced to close if it doesn't sell off an art collection donated by artist Georgia O'Keefe.

But lawyers for the state of Tennessee, which is trying to block the sale, argued that the famous artist never intended for the school to sell the collection, and the sale would actually drive away potential Fisk donors.

"What donor in their right mind is going to give money to Fisk when they know that when they're dead, Fisk is going to do whatever it wants with it," deputy attorney general Janet Kleinfelter asked.

Testimony continues Friday in the Chancery Court trial, which began Wednesday. It will determine the fate of the 101-piece Steiglitz collection, which O'Keefe donated to the school in 1949.

Fisk wants to sell a 50 percent share of the collection for $30 million to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark. The school and the museum - founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton - would each house the collection and pay for its maintenance.

The school hopes the infusion of cash will lead to more donations, and that Fisk could raise $150 million for its endowment.

The state says O'Keefe donated the prized collection for the benefit of Fisk students and local citizens, not to leverage money.

Testimony at the trial showed the gift, from the beginning, was an enormous financial burden on the school because it had to pay to house, maintain and secure the artwork. It could cost Fisk approximately $1.4 million a year to maintain the artwork.

State officials believe that under the proposed deal, Fisk could wind up losing its share of the artwork if the school cannot afford the costs to maintain the art.

O'Leary testified the school has been running deficits for the last few years and is being monitored by an accreditation agency because of its poor financial condition.

"Fisk is struggling for life," she said.

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