ARTnewsletter Archive

Politician’s Proposal to Sell Pollock Masterpiece Draws Art-World Ire

An Iowa legislator’s proposal earlier this month to sell a pricey Jackson Pollock painting to fund scholarships for university students sparked strong, swift reaction from museum officials and other art-world observers.

NEW YORK—An Iowa legislator’s proposal earlier this month to sell a pricey Jackson Pollock painting to fund scholarships for university students sparked strong, swift reaction from museum officials and other art-world observers.

In “House Study Bill 84,” filed Feb. 9, Republican state representative Scott Raecker suggested the state board of regents explore the possibility of selling Pollock’s 20-foot Mural, 1943, currently owned by the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA) and last appraised at more than $100 million for insurance purposes, by Sotheby’s, in 2008 (ANL, 9/2/08).

Mural was given to the university in 1951 by art dealer and Pollock patron Peggy Guggenheim, who had commissioned the work.

Raecker proposed that the proceeds of any sale be held in a trust fund and used to provide scholarship assistance to undergraduate students at the university who are residents of Iowa and majoring in art. If enough funds were available, scholarship assistance would also be provided to undergraduates pursuing other liberal-arts majors. Raecker stipulates that the amount of scholarship assistance would not exceed “the amount of interest or earnings on the money in the trust fund in the preceding fiscal year” to ensure that the principal amount on any sale would remain untouched.

Under the guidelines of the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), deaccessioning works from a museum collection is permitted only when the funds realized are put toward future accessions, not toward funding any other expenses or operating costs. UIMA is an accredited member of the AAM and is in the process of renewing its participation in AAMD.

Within days of its being put forward, the AAM and the AAMD issued a joint statement condemning the proposal and noting that their respective presidents, Janet Landay and Christine Anagnos, were “alarmed to learn of” it. “Such a sale would violate a fundamental ethical principle of the museum field, one which all accredited museums are bound to respect: that an accessioned work of art may not be treated as a disposable financial asset,” according to their statement.

It continues: “University of Iowa president Sally Mason has forcefully spoken out against such an action in the past. We applaud this courageous stand and deplore the treatment of works of art held in trust for the public as a ready source of cash.

“The reason why this case is so problematic is that it is our most important gift,” museum director Sean O’Harrow told ARTnewsletter. “It sends the worst kind of signal that gifts are not valued and that in some cases the wishes of the donors will not be adhered to. This will ruin the reputation not only of the museum, but of the university and the state.”

In an Op-Ed column that appeared in the Quad City Times (and which was originally published in conjunction with earlier discussions regarding a possible sale of the painting), entitled “Legislators Make Lousy Curators,” former UIMA interim director Pam White wrote: “If putting a price on culture is the role of the legislature, then begin posting the ‘for sale’ signs right now.”

White pointed out that Mural “wasn’t purchased by taxpayers, students, college art professors or anyone in Iowa. It was paid for by the late Peggy Guggenheim, heir to her New York family’s mining and metals fortune. Guggenheim bankrolled Jackson Pollock and specifically commissioned this piece, credited for reinventing Pollock’s approach to painting and consequently, American modern art in the late 1940s.”

Opinion among the members of the board of regents is divided. In a statement sent to ARTnewsletter via e-mail, board president David Miles said selling the painting is “a profoundly bad idea,” noting that it had already been explored by the board in 2008, as a way to raise money for repairs and renovations following serious flood damage to the museum building sustained that summer and stating that it was then “determined not to be in the best interests of the University of Iowa or the state.

“A forced sale of this painting by the Iowa Legislature would break trust with all who have contributed to the arts at UI over the years, would chill any future donations and may well have led to litigation with the family that donated” the work in the first place, Miles went on. “Crippling an outstanding program in order to provide scholarships for that very same program doesn’t make sense.”

However, at least one regents board member disagrees. In a statement released Feb. 11, Michael Gartner said that providing scholarships to Iowa students is “far more important than owning a painting that is not on the campus, has not been for two years, and is unlikely to be for at least another three years.” Gartner was referring to the transfer of the Pollock and other works from the university museum to the Figge Art Museum in Davenport to keep the works safe during the 2008 floods.

In an e-mail to ARTnewsletter, Raecker said the regents have “differing opinions on the issue and many legislators believe the possibility warrants discussion—which is the purpose of a study bill—to explore the best use of assets for the core purpose of the university: education.” He added, “Issues raised by the Regents, museum associations, and constituents will all be addressed as the bill moves through the process.”