Despite two years of trying, Fisk University has not been able to turn any of the valuable art donated by painter Georgia O’Keeffe into cash.
Although a legal fight over the latest $30 million proposal to share the 101-piece art collection with an Arkansas museum is scheduled for trial in February, leaders of the struggling historically black university acknowledge that it could be years before any money changes hands.
So the Nashville school that was founded in 1866 to educate former slaves has had to look elsewhere to keep its doors open—a difficult task in a community that has been asked to come to the school’s financial rescue several times before.
“There is a fatigue factor there,” said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat and a former Nashville mayor. “There’s a lot of people who give money traditionally for valuable projects who have given money to Fisk in the past, who don’t think they’ve necessarily fixed the underlying problems.
Fisk’s board of trustees in December 2005 voted to try to sell off two signature pieces of the art collection to help keep the school afloat. Those efforts became bogged down in court battles over whether the sale of paintings violated the terms of O’Keeffe’s bequest, and a Fisk lawyer told the judge that the school was likely to run out of cash before the end of the year.
Davis Carr, a former member of the school’s board, said donors are frightened off by Fisk’s decades of financial problems.
The university had to borrow money in the late in 1970s and averted a shutdown in the early 1980s, thanks in large part to donations from Nashvillians and alumni.
Fisk reported operating losses that totaled more than $7 million in 2005 and 2006, according to GuideStar.org, which tracks the finances of nonprofit organizations.
Fisk’s lawyers have said the school has mortgaged all of its buildings and tapped out all of its endowment not restricted to specific programs.
A 2002 plan to boost enrollment by about 500 students over four years never came to fruition, and the school’s student body remains at fewer than 900 students.
“Foundations who give serious money don’t give it to poorly managed institutions,” Carr said. “I’m not saying Fisk is currently poorly managed, but if they’ve not been able to make it work over some long period of time, that sends a signal.”