The Stieglitz Collection at Fisk University

by C. Michael Norton.*

Georgia O’Keeffe received word in 1946 in New Mexico that her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, had suffered a serious stroke in New York. Catching the next airplane from Albuquerque, she was by his side when he died on July 13. No one at Fisk University in Nashville knew then that Stieglitz’s death had put into motion a chain of events which would lead to Fisk’s receiving, in 1949, an art collection considered “the finest of its type anywhere in the South.”

The Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery on the Fisk University campus

Stieglitz, one of the greatest photographers in the history of the medium, is credited with transforming photography from a method of documentation into an art form. As a premier collector and gallery owner of his time, Stieglitz encouraged and acquired art work by many young American artists, including Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth, and John Marin. He is also credited with mounting the first exhibition of African sculpture in the United States. O’Keeffe, generally considered the most important female artist in 20th century America (a description that would have irritated her), had both a business and personal relationship with the much older Stieglitz. They married in 1924, despite the 23-year difference in their ages.

Along with his own photographs, Stieglitz amassed a substantial collection of paintings, but he failed to do anything with the collection during his lifetime, leaving that particular burden to O’Keeffe after his death. His will granted O’Keeffe the right to select the recipients of the art, provided it went to “one or more” non-profit corporations “under such arrangements as will assure to the public, under reasonable regulations, access thereto to promote the study of art.”

1918 Alfred Stieglitz photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe (public domain)

O’Keeffe undertook the difficult task of organizing and giving away over 1,000 pieces of art. She eventually divided the works among six institutions. The first five were logical choices: the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The sixth choice was a surprise: Fisk University.

Founded in 1866 to educate newly freed slaves, Fisk is one of Nashville’s oldest universities. Outside the black community, Fisk was at that time probably best known for its choir, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who have performed throughout this country and others since 1871. Fisk was also respected for offering a solid academic program: in 1930 it became the first African-American institution to earn accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The obvious question, however, is why Fisk was selected to receive 101 pieces of art from the collection, when neither Stieglitz nor O’Keeffe had ever visited this small, historically black college in the South, where rigid segregation was the order of the day.

Enter Carl Van Vechten, New York writer/photographer and friend of both Stieglitz and O’Keeffe. A patron of the Harlem Renaissance with a consuming interest in black culture, he was also a friend of Fisk President Charles Spurgeon Johnson. Van Vechten informed O’Keeffe of his intention to leave many of his photographs and other materials to the school and introduced her to President Johnson. A sociologist by training, Dr. Johnson had come to Fisk in 1928 after spending several years in New York as director of research for the National Urban League and as a supporter of the arts. Elected president of Fisk in 1946, Johnson was the first black to occupy that position.

Later O’Keeffe explained that she picked Fisk because it would have made Stieglitz happy. Since she had given portions of the collections to institutions in the Northeast and the Midwest, she thought it logical that some of the collection go to another part of the country.

Whatever her reasons, the choice was not without problems. In late October 1949, O’Keeffe and her assistant drove to Nashville from New Mexico to inspect the gallery (to be named in honor of Van Vechten) and to assist with the hanging of the art. Fisk had gone to considerable effort and expense to convert its old gymnasium into an art gallery, hiring a New York architect to design the space. When O’Keeffe saw the gallery for the first time, she hated it. She and her assistant began conforming the space to her wishes, coming in at 7:00 each morning to meet with the workmen. For at least a week she made changes: replacing the lighting, removing molding, painting walls, changing the color of cabinets, and more. Still unhappy with the lights, she flew in a lighting expert on the morning of the opening to make a few final changes.

The opening ceremonies took place on the afternoon of November 4, 1949, in Memorial Chapel, filled to capacity with more than 900 present. President Johnson introduced O’Keeffe, who declined to approach the rostrum, speaking instead from her chair: “Dr. Johnson wrote and asked me to speak and I did not answer. I had and have no intention of speaking. These paintings and sculptures are a gift from Stieglitz. They are for the students. I hope you will go back and look at them more than once.” Van Vechten also spoke briefly, concluding that the gallery was “not equaled by any in New York City.” The dean of education at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art delivered the major address.

The Stieglitz Collection consists of 101 art works: five pieces of African tribal art, nineteen Stieglitz photographs, two paintings by O’Keeffe, prints by Cezanne and Renoir, and a number of paintings by Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, and John Marin.

*Editor’s note: A seven-year legal battle, which took place during a period of severe financial hardship for Fisk, ended in a partnership between Fisk University and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. According to the terms of the final $30 million agreement, the two institutions, each now owning half of the relevant art pieces, agree to share the Stieglitz Collection, passing it back and forth on a two-year rotation. (Author Mike Norton was part of the legal team that fashioned this agreement.) The collection returned to Fisk University in April 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced it to be closed to the public much of the time since its return. This short film from NPT provides a useful introduction to the museum and its collection:

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