Wednesday, February 01, 2012

As near as possible

The Tennesse Attorney General has gone ahead and filed for permission to appeal the most recent ruling in the Fisk case.  Here's a brief AP story.  Here's the brief.  And here is donor-intent protector Lee Rosenbaum, coming out of retirement to cheer on Super Cooper's forfeiting of his neutrality.

A few comments on the brief:

1.  It contains as clear a statement of Donor Intent Absolutism as you will ever see:  "[T]he fact that the donee may cease to exist if it is not permitted to change the conditions of a gift ... does not authorize a deviation from the conditions of the gift."   Wow, that's cold.  O'Keeffe said no sales and that means no sales.  If that results in Fisk having to shut its doors, so be it.  But wasn't it also part of her intent that Fisk own the works?  After all, she could have given them to anyone, but she chose Fisk.  Why do we assume the no sale part of her intent is more important than the Fisk part of her intent?  It's not as if she said "here is a bunch of artwork, I don't really care who owns them or what happens to them just as long as, please God, they never ever be sold!"  In other words, do we really think that, given the choice, O'Keeffe would prefer to see Fisk close down and the works sent somewhere else than the collection sharing arrangement on the table now, in which Fisk survives and retains a 50% interest in the works?

2.  Speaking of that retained 50% interest (and the related right to exhibit the works for two out of every four years):  the brief bizarrely reads as if the whole collection is being shipped off to Russia or something, never to be seen again.  It claims the deal that's been approved converts the collection "into nothing more than a source of revenue for Fisk."  It argues that, under the cy pres doctrine, any deviation "must be as close as possible to what the donor intended" and this deal "is far removed from Ms. O'Keeffe's intent and purpose."  What was that intent and purpose that we are far removed from?  According to the AG, it's that the work "be used for art education in Nashville and the South."  O'Keeffe's "primary charitable purpose was to enable the public -- in Nashville and the South -- to have the opportunity to study the Collection in order to promote the general study of art."  Seriously?  That's their argument?  That a collection-sharing arrangement that has the work in Nashville at Fisk half the time and at a brand new museum of American art in Arkansas (which may well "become a place of pilgrimage for art lovers from around the world") half the time is far removed from an intent to enable the public -- in Nashville and the South -- to have the access to the collection?  Really?

3.  Finally, a word about this silly notion that allowing this collection-sharing arrangement to go forward will "chill" future charitable donations.  Look, this case isn't inventing a new way to subvert donor intent; it's applying long-standing doctrine (one that existed at the time O'Keeffe made her gift).  As the AG's brief itself notes, the cy pres doctrine was "first codified in New York in 1893."  Every single charitable gift comes with an implicit asterisk to the effect that, when changed circumstances make compliance with the terms of the gift impracticable, a court may modify those terms.  That was true before the Fisk decision, and remains true after.  Reversing the decision in this case would not make that asterisk go away.  No donor can ever be "certain" that the conditions of her gift will be honored for all eternity.  Fisk happens.