Carl Van Vechten Gallery
At the corner of Jackson Street and Todd Boulevard is the Carl Van Vechten Gallery (615/329-8720, Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., free), named for the art collector who convinced artist Georgia O’Keeffe to donate a large portion of the work and personal collection of her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz, to Fisk University.
When photographer Alfred Stieglitz died in 1946, his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, herself one of the most important artists of her generation, was left with the responsibility of giving away his massive art collection. Stieglitz had collected more than 1,000 works by artists including Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth, and John Marin. He also owned several African sculptures.
Stieglitz’s instructions regarding this art collection were vague. In his will he asked O’Keeffe to select the recipients “under such arrangements as will assure to the public, under reasonable regulations, access thereto to promote the study of art.”
O’Keeffe selected several obvious recipients for parts of the collection: the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Fisk University in Nashville was a surprise, and Carl Van Vechten, a writer, photographer, and friend of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, is credited with making the suggestion. Van Vechten was keenly interested in African-American art and was close friends with Fisk president Charles Johnson.
O’Keeffe and Fisk were not an easy partnership. According to an account by C. Michael Norton, when she first visited the university a few days before the Carl Van Vechten Gallery would open on campus, O’Keeffe ordered major changes to the gallery space, eventually flying in a lighting designer from New York on the day before the opening.
At the opening ceremony on November 4, 1949, held at the Memorial Chapel at Fisk, O’Keeffe declined President Johnson’s invitation to the lectern and spoke from her chair, saying curtly: “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 go back and look at them more than once.”
The Stieglitz Collection at Fisk consists of 101 works of art, including two by O’Keeffe, 19 Stieglitz photographs, as well as acclaimed European and American artists including Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Diego Rivera, Arthur Dove, Gino Severini, and Charles Demuth, and five pieces of African tribal art. It is truly a remarkable collection.
The college still retains much of this collection, although they have sought to sell parts of it to raise funds for the cash-strapped private school. A proposal to sell a 50 percent share in the collection for $30 million to Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, has been rejected by a court, but Fisk continues to press its case.
In 2008, an alternative proposal was made to house the collection in the planned museum of African-American culture, art, and history, to be located near the Bicentennial Mall. But that idea offered no immediate financial relief for Fisk and raised many unanswered questions. Meanwhile, Fisk reopened the Van Vechten Gallery in October 2008 so that the legendary collection is once again accessible to the public.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition