A judge on Friday rejected Fisk University's latest attempt to sell to an Arkansas museum a joint stake in a 101-piece collection donated to the school by the late artist Georgia O'Keeffe.
Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle agreed with Fisk's argument at trial that the historically black university's precarious financial state makes the school unable to exhibit the collection. But the judge said the Fisk proposal to sell a 50 percent to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark., for $30 million does not meet the terms of the donation O'Keeffe made to the school in 1949.
"Fisk either needs assistance with the Collection or Fisk needs to be replaced," Lyle said in the ruling.
A spokesman for Fisk said officials were still reviewing the decision, and a message left with the Crystal Bridges museum was not immediately returned. The museum was founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton.
O'Keeffe donated the art to Fisk because the school, founded in 1866, educated blacks at a time when the South was segregated. Her purpose was to "enable the public -- in Nashville and the South -- to have the opportunity to study the Collection," Lyle said in the ruling.
Lyle noted that the driving distance to Bentonville is 555 miles, and that Nashville is both more racially diverse and closer to other Southern states. The deal with Crystal Bridges would "dilute, override and in some cases thwart Ms. O'Keeffe's intention," Lyle said.
Lyle ordered the state attorney general to offer a "Nashville-based solution" within 20 days. She said a 2008 proposal to create a satellite Fisk campus within the city's Frist Center for the Visual Arts to show the collection is a "resourceful idea, but merely hypothetical at this point."
A similar arrangement has been adopted by the Louisville Museum to house art donated to the University of Kentucky with no-sale conditions akin to those set by O'Keeffe, according to the ruling.
Lyle's ruling also allows for Fisk to modify its Crystal Bridges proposal or propose other solutions.
"We hope all those in our community who care about the future of this collection and Fisk University will join us in seizing this opportunity provided by the Court to look for constructive and creative alternatives," Attorney General Bob Cooper said in a statement.
Ninety-seven of the works were part of a collection that belonged to O'Keeffe's late husband, the photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz. O'Keeffe donated those works to the university in 1949 while executing Stieglitz's will.
Four other works, including O'Keeffe's own 1927 oil painting "Radiator Building -- Night, New York," were given to the museum later.
Art historians say the collection the school has valued at $74 million has an appealing unity because many of the American artists were part of O'Keeffe and Stieglitz's circle of friends. Along with paintings by O'Keeffe, the collection includes works by Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne, Marsden Hartley and Diego Rivera.
Attorneys for the state argued that allowing Fisk to sell a donated art collection could deter people from giving future gifts in the Volunteer State.
Fisk put the art into storage in 2005 because the gallery where it was exhibited was falling apart, and there were fears the works would be damaged. That same year, Fisk's trustees voted to sell O'Keeffe's "Radiator Building" and Hartley's "Painting No. 3" to help keep the school afloat.
Lyle ruled in 2008 that Fisk University broke the terms of O'Keeffe's donation by trying to sell individual pieces or a share of the entire collection. But she stopped short of granting the art collection to a New Mexico museum that represents the late artist's estate -- as long as the school retrieved the collection from storage and kept it on display.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals later ruled that the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe had no right to the collection, clearing the path for the latest attempt to sell a share of the art to the Crystal Bridges museum.
O'Keeffe died in 1986.