As reported in the Nashville Tennessean, Fisk University and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum have settled a lawsuit brought by the Museum that sought to prevent Fisk from selling a Georgia O’Keeffe painting now owned by the University. Radiator Building–Night, New York (shown below) is part of the 101-painting Alfred Stieglitz Collection of modern art given to Fisk by the artist in 1949. If the agreement is approved by Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle, Fisk will sell the Radiator painting to the Museum for $7.5 million, and will gain permission to sell Marsden Hartley’s Painting No. 3.
According to David West, the spokesman for Fisk, “the scope of our financial challenges requires a large infusion of cash to provide a lasting fix for our circumstances.” The key word here is “lasting.” Fisk has an increasingly difficult time raising money and fulfilling its mission. The University should reassess what it can do and should do. My recommendation? Sell the entire collection, and use that money to transform Fisk into an institute that will better fit the 21st Century.
When Fisk opened its doors in 1866, it filled a vital need: educating African-Americans who had few other places to go. Over the decades, Fisk produced many black luminaries: thinker W.E.B. DuBois, civil rights activist John Lewis, poet Nikki Giovanni, and hundreds of less famous people who made great contributions to Tennessee and the nation.
Fortunately, times have changed. Top-flight African-American students are heavily recruited by Harvard, Yale, and other top colleges. Average to good students can find places at state universities, and students who struggle can begin at the community college level and work their way up. I think it’s safe to say that if W.E.B. DuBois were 17 years old today, he wouldn’t even consider going to Fisk.
So what should Fisk do? First, stop trying to compete in an academic world in which it can no longer succeed. Shut down the college, and transform itself into a research institute that can address problems in the African-American world–in the US and abroad. Fisk could sell the entire Alfred Stieglitz Collection for $100 million or more and use that money to endow the entire operation.
There’s a model for doing this, and that model is the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Radcliffe College was founded in 1879 to provide education for women when Harvard and other colleges would not admit them. Radcliffe, like Fisk, did a wonderful job in its day and produced all manner of alumni who accomplished great things. But times changed, and Radcliffe’s students were admitted to Harvard and elsewhere, and the women’s college recognized that fact and transformed itself into an organization that meets the needs of women in our time.
Here’s just one example of what the Institute does well. From Wikipedia: “Radcliffe Institute fellowships are designed to support scholars, scientists, artists, and writers of exceptional promise and demonstrated accomplishments who wish to pursue work in academic and professional fields and in the creative arts.”
Think of the African-American scholars, scientists, artists, and writers whose careers could be launched by an influx of support at a crucial point in their careers. Think of research that could be done on African-American subjects that is not being done now for a lack of funds. Now compare that with trying to keep a college limping along whose best days are behind it.
Georgia O’Keeffe believed in Fisk and in African-American education. It would be fitting and proper for her collection to fund a new Fisk Institute that, instead of lurching from crisis to crisis, would make meaningful contributions to African-American life for decades to come.