Taking millions of dollars from its endowment to pay bills may have put Fisk University in the unenviable position of needing to sell part of its prestigious Stieglitz artwork collection.
In the past year, a handful of small colleges around the country have found themselves contemplating a similar step.
Rockford College in Illinois put part of its art collection up for sale last fall to help pay down debt from outstanding loans and bills. At the same time, Thomas Jefferson University announced it was selling off a popular painting that has historical ties to the college's home city of Philadelphia.
And a year ago, Hartwick College in New York weighed a similar choice but ultimately decided against selling art — which would have raised money for a restricted endowment. The school concluded the sale would not raise enough to justify losing the pieces.
The issue is of enough concern that when the national group that oversees campus art collections holds its annual conference this spring, top agenda items will be "Ownership of Collections" and "Collections at Risk; Threats to the Collection and Museum."
"It's certainly not a coincidence that we're going to be tackling this topic in May," said Lisa Tremper Hanover, president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries.
"I don't want to call it a trend, but we have seen a sudden influx of situations similar to the one at Fisk. The biggest questions we have include 'Are the works being used in the manner donors intended? Are they being used to educate? If not, are the schools better off divesting themselves of the entire collection, instead of two or three pieces?' "
Rockford and Fisk are roughly the same size, with enrollments of 800 to 900 undergraduate students. Rockford has been about $10 million in debt for more than a decade and has a very small endowment to work with, said John McNamara, the college's vice president for college development.
"I wouldn't say we are in the same situation as Fisk because I'm not aware of their situation — but we face a lot of debt and really had to figure out a way to pay it down," he said. "We talked to faculty about it first, and also talked to alumni. What we found was that the art really wasn't being used as learning tools, and very few pieces were actually on display."
Rockford decided in September to sell nearly 70 percent of its collection. The initial sale brought in $1.1 million. It was conducted by Leslie Hindman Auction House of Chicago and included works by Danish painter Soren Emil Carlsen and an etching by Spanish artist Francisco de Goya.
"We've been pleased with the process and the results," McNamara said, noting that pieces of the collection are still being sold. "I think for us, being open and honest about what we were doing has made things better."
Other collection highlights include Egyptian and Roman antiquities, Ando Hiroshige woodblock prints and a collection of African and Oceanic art.
In Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson University announced in November that it was selling an 1875 masterpiece, Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic, for $68 million. Soon, a partnership from within the city stepped in to match the sale price and keep the painting in Philadelphia.
The university plans to use the money to improve programs and the campus infrastructure, Thomas Jefferson officials said.
In October, Hartwick College, a small liberal arts college in New York, announced it was negotiating with the state to sell more than 800 acres of land and part of a fine-arts collection at its Yager Museum. Revenues from the collection, which included paintings and prints from the Louis van Ess collection, were to be used as endowments. School officials changed their mind soon after, following protest from the local art community.
Fisk's prestigious Stieglitz Collection has been in storage at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts since November 2005. The university's Carl Van Vechten Gallery, home of the collection, is undergoing improvements designed to help secure the artworks against theft, fire and water damage.
Fisk wants to sell Georgia O'Keeffe's 1927 painting Radiator Building — Night, New York and Marsden Hartley's 1913 Painting No. 3 from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection donated to the school by O'Keeffe in 1949.
In a proposed deal, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum would withdraw its legal challenge to prevent the sale of the two paintings and buy the O'Keeffe work for $7 million.
Under an arrangement established by the Tennessee attorney general, Fisk was given 30 days to explore alternatives that would allow the school to raise sorely needed money while keeping the paintings with the rest of the collection. Fisk ended fiscal year 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available, $3.5 million in the red.
Last summer, President Hazel O'Leary admitted the university had withdrawn money from its endowment to make ends meet and began listing artwork as part of the endowment. In July, Fisk officials said the endowment was now valued at roughly $15.2 million; of that, $7.7 million is in the form of artwork. Taking out cash and substituting artwork meant a further loss of investment income, and O'Leary said operating funds had to be used to cover scholarships that would have been funded by the endowment's earnings.
O'Leary did not return phone calls for this story.
But Ken West, Fisk's spokesman, said the university is looking at other options.
"But we haven't stopped our regular campaigning for alumni contributions," West said. "It's not like we're looking at selling the art as our only means of funding. We continue to move forward with our regular programs."