Friday, September 14, 2007

The Fisk Decision

I've now had a chance to read Chancellor Lyle's decision rejecting the proposed Fisk-O'Keeffe settlement, which in turn led the O'Keeffe Museum to drop its lawsuit (as well as to "a little joy in Fiskville"), clearing the way, or so the consensus goes, for the university to accept an 11th hour offer that had come in from Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum. The court saw the matter as turning on a single question: was the proposed settlement "in the best interest of the people of the State of Tennessee?" And it thought the answer was "no," for the simple reason that there was a better offer on the table from Crystal Bridges. The court listed "several reasons" for this conclusion:

1. The "obvious reason" that Crystal Bridges "offers more money": "$30 million is four times the $7.5 million offered by the Museum. ... While $7.5 million might tide Fisk over, $30 million would put the University on much firmer financial footing." As I've mentioned before, the museum's offer -- because it would also have allowed the university to sell a valuable Marsden Hartley painting on the open market (albeit subject to certain restrictions that would have depressed its price at least to some extent) -- would probably have yielded the university somewhere closer to $25-$30 million. So then the question becomes would you rather sell half the entire collection for $30 million or, for (roughly) the same price, sell the two best works in the collection and retain 100% ownership of the other 99 (lesser) works (plus the right to exhibit the single best painting for four months out of every four years, or just over 8% of the time). I'm not sure how you would even go about answering that question.

2. The Crystal Bridges offer gives the people of Tennessee "more access to ... the important artwork Radiator Building." That's undeniably true, but it gives them less access to all the other works in the collection (other than the Hartley). Instead of having access to those works all the time, under the Crystal Bridges offer they would have access to them 50% of the time. Again: how do you weigh those alternatives against each other?

3. The third and final reason is, in Chancellor Lyle's words, "integrity. The law respects and honors the intent of donor's [sic] who give charitable gifts." By which I suppose she means that the people of the State of Tennessee have an independent interest in seeing people's donative intent respected, separate and apart from whether or not, from a purely consequentialist perspective, honoring that intent would benefit the people of the State (as, for example, if the intent was that the works never be sold, in any form). And here the court interpreted the donor's intent to be (a) that the collection be "preserved as a whole and remain intact"; (b) that it be "titled and known as the 'Alfred Stieglitz Collection'"; (c) that it "convey [Stieglitz's] unitized view of modern art"; and (d) that Radiator Building "is essential to and the heart of" the collection. On that interpretation of O'Keeffe's intent, it's hard to argue that the Crystal Bridges offer isn't superior to the proposed settlement.

As I mentioned above, the consensus seems to be that the door is now wide open for Crystal Bridges, though the chairman of the board of the O'Keeffe Museum said this week that "it’s by no means a done deal" and Attorney General Cooper "reiterated a point he made in a letter to Walton last week: 'I would still prefer to see a local proposal that allows the Collection to remain in Nashville on a full-time basis.'" Isn't it obviously in the best interests of the people of the State of Tennessee to open it up to other bids? Maybe another museum somewhere is willing to offer more than $30 million for a 50% interest.

But what if an institution (or even an individual) in Tennessee steps forward with an offer of less than $30 million but which satisfies Cooper's wish that the collection stays in Tennessee?

Then what?