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By Sheila Burke of the Associated Press
Published: 28 May 2011

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Lawyers for Fisk University are asking a Tennessee appeals court to end the 5-year court battle over an art collection donated to the school by the late painter Georgia O'Keeffe and approve a plan they say would save the school.

The school filed a brief this week in response to an appeal by the attorney general of Tennessee, saying Fisk won't be able to care for the Stieglitz Collection if it's forced to shut its doors because of financial woes. In it they are rejecting a state proposal that Fisk use a charitable fund that would pay $131,000 a year to display and maintain the collection.

"The $131,000 is not nearly enough money to keep Fisk open, and if this plan is adopted the uncontested evidence is that Fisk will close,'' the brief says.

O'Keeffe donated the 101-piece modern art collection to Fisk in 1949 with the intent that the historically black school display it and not sell it.

Tennessee's attorney general has fought to keep the collection in Nashville, arguing that if Fisk is allowed to sell the gift it will deter future charitable gifts to the state of Tennessee.

The school is trying to stay afloat and wants to make $30 million from a deal with the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas that would allow the two institutions to share the artwork. The school argues in the brief that it's not really selling the collection, merely sharing it.

The collection belonged to O'Keeffe's late husband, photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz. It includes works by Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne, Marsden Hartley and Diego Rivera, as well as those of O'Keeffe and Stieglitz.

Last year a Nashville judge approved the sharing arrangement but said Fisk would only be entitled to $10 million and the remaining $20 million would be placed in an endowment to pay for the costs of maintaining and displaying the collection.

The school appealed, arguing that the judge abused her discretion by ordering so much be set aside for the endowment.

Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper filed a cross appeal earlier this month. He wants the school to use a fund established by Fisk alumna Carol Creswell-Betsch that would pay the display and maintenance costs of the art.

The state is also concerned that Fisk's creditors will stake a claim to the collection in the event that the university files for bankruptcy.

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