ARTnewsletter Archive

Deaccessioning Draws Fire at College Museums

University museums are once again finding themselves in the spotlight as the issues of deaccessioning art and leveraging collections to raise money for operating costs draw criticism from curators, philanthropists and other art experts.

EW YORK—University museums are once again finding themselves in the spotlight as the issues of deaccessioning art and leveraging collections to raise money for operating costs draw criticism from curators, philanthropists and other art experts.

This past summer the University of Iowa campus sustained an estimated $231 million in flood damage—including $4 million in damage to its art museum and about $12 million in damage to its three-year-old Art Building West, a prize-winning building designed by architect Steven Holl. Most of the 13,000 works in the museum collection were safely evacuated to an undisclosed location in Chicago and were not damaged.

In early August, the Iowa State Board of Regents said it would conduct a study to appraise the value of one of the university’s most valuable possessions—Jackson Pollock’s 20-foot Mural, 1943, given to the university in 1951 by art dealer and Pollock patron Peggy Guggenheim, who had commissioned the work. A summary of the meeting on the Board of Regents Web site stated, “Related to the University of Iowa flood recovery costs, Regent [Michael] Gartner requested that the Board Office prepare a report relative to the Jackson Pollock artwork in the University’s art collection. The purpose of the report would be to evaluate the pros and cons of possibly selling the art work and applying the proceeds toward flood recovery costs.” According to a spokesperson for the Regents, the report, scheduled for delivery in late October, will include information on the work’s “value to a public museum, legal and policy issues, insurance and security costs, as well as other issues.”

The highest price paid for a Pollock—or for any painting, for that matter—was the reported $140 million for a drip painting sold by entertainment mogul David Geffen in late 2006. According to the New York Times, the buyer of the work was Mexican financier David Martinez. The Pollock painting in the Iowa collection is worth $100 million or more, according to a recent appraisal by Sotheby’s that was carried out for insurance purposes, a spokesperson for the museum confirmed.

Several museum associations have publicized their opposition to a possible sale. In an August 12 letter to Iowa Board of Regents president David Miles, Association of Art Museum Directors president Michael Conforti, who is the director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., wrote that “deaccessioning is a serious issue for which very strict professional standards apply. The AAMD guidelines state clearly that deaccessioning is not to be used to provide operating funds, and that such proceeds be treated as acquisition funds. . . . The idea of Mural being sold is an alarming one to museum professionals and art historians, and should be as well to those who appreciate art . . . The possibility of the work passing into private hands and becoming unavailable for study and enjoyment alike is a particularly frightening one.” Other groups that have criticized the Iowa decision include the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries (ACUMG).

The Iowa Board of Regents declined to comment pending the October report on the Pollock. Steve Parrott, director of university relations, told ARTnewsletter in an e-mail that “President [Sally] Mason has said she does not want to sell the Pollock. However, she also respects the Board of Regents’ decision to investigate the pros and cons of a sale. With that in mind, she is withholding further comment until that review is completed by the Board of Regents’ office.”

Pamela White, interim director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, told ARTnewsletter that along with Mason, she has emphatically expressed her opposition to selling the painting. However, “we all have to make certain to fulfill the requirements of the Regents and assist them in preparing a thorough report on this matter,” she said.

The American Association of Museums declined to comment specifically on the Jackson Pollock painting at Iowa, instead referring to its code of ethics, which states in part that “ . . . disposal of collections through sale, trade or research activities occurs solely in keeping with the museum’s mission—proceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistently within the established standards of the museum’s ¬discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.”

The University of Iowa Museum of Art is an accredited member of the AAM, according to AAM director of media relations Dewey Blanton. He points out that deaccessioning was the “root of the only instance of a museum’s AAM accreditation being revoked,” referring to the Museum of Northern Arizona. (The museum’s accreditation was recently restored.)

Fisk Appeals Chancery Court Ruling

Meanwhile, after more than two years of litigation, Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn., is forging ahead with its efforts to gain legal approval for an art-sharing agreement with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the institution founded by Wal-Mart heiress and art collector Alice Walton. Crystal Bridges is scheduled to open in Bentonville, Ark., in 2010.

On August 8, Fisk filed a 65-page appeal with the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Middle Section at Nashville, objecting to a Chancery Court ruling last March that denied a sharing or selling arrangement. Under the terms of the proposed Crystal Bridges agreement, Fisk would give the museum a 50 percent undivided interest in its Alfred Stieglitz Collection of 101 modern artworks in exchange for $30 million.

Fisk, which has struggled financially in recent years, argues that the agreement would allow it to obtain fiscal stability. Furthermore, Fisk officials say, the Crystal Bridges agreement would be in keeping with the condition artist Georgia O’Keeffe imposed when she gave the collection of Stieglitz, her late husband, to Fisk in 1949: that the works be kept together.

In a statement issued to ARTnewsletter when the agreement was rejected last March, Crystal Bridges executive director Robert Workman voiced continued support for the proposal: “We continue to believe our innovative agreement with Fisk offers the best solution to this situation, and we hope Chancellor [Ellen Hobbs] Lyle’s opinion prohibiting the sale of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection will be reversed on appeal.”

A response to the Fisk appeal from officials of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, N.M., which oversees the O’Keeffe estate and had sued Fisk over its attempts to leverage the collection, is due Sept. 8.