ARTnewsletter Archive

Museum Breathes a Sigh of Relief As Talk of Pollock Sale Is Dropped

An Iowa legislator has put aside—at least for now—a bill that proposed exploring the sale of a major Jackson Pollock painting in a university museum collection to provide scholarship funding (ANL, 2/22/11).

NEW YORK—An Iowa legislator has put aside—at least for now—a bill that proposed exploring the sale of a major Jackson Pollock painting in a university museum collection to provide scholarship funding (ANL, 2/22/11).

In a statement emailed to ARTnewsletter, Iowa house appropriations chair Scott Raecker (R-Urbandale) said: “The discussion of the potential sale of the Jackson Pollock painting is certainly controversial, yet warrants discussion, as even members of the Board of Regents are split on the idea. I am a firm believer in the legislative process however, and further discussion of the sale of the Pollock painting will not be moved forward this year.”

In “House Study Bill 84,” filed Feb. 9, 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). Recent reports have estimated the value of the painting at up to $140 million.

University of Iowa Museum of Art director Sean O’Harrow said the recent proposal had been met with a storm of protest. In an email to ARTnewsletter, O’Harrow said “there were a great number of people who contacted their legislators, and even the governor, to express their displeasure.”

Mural was given to the university in 1951 by art dealer and Pollock patron Peggy Guggenheim, who had commissioned the work. Museum officials point out that Guggenheim made her intentions about the gift clear nearly 50 years ago. In a letter to then University of Iowa president Virgil Hancher, she wrote: “…it is extremely unpleasant for me that you should sell my gift… If you no longer wish to have this mural in your university I must ask you to return it to me…”

Analyzing donor intent was also a major issue in the high-profile dispute over Nashville-Tenn.-based Fisk University’s recent efforts to leverage its art collection in the face of financial difficulties. In that case, the donor in question was artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who in 1949 gave Fisk 101 works of art from the collection of her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz.

The?Tennessee state attorney general, which opposed the school’s efforts to sell all or part of the collection, pointed to letters O’Keeffe had written to the school after making her gift.

Court papers cited a 1951 letter from O’Keeffe to then university president Charles Johnson, in which she expressed concern about the school’s ability to care for the collection: “You know I made considerable effort to get the part of the Stieglitz Collection I sent to you on the walls… You do not seem to have anyone to take care of it or utilize it and you have written me nothing about air conditioning or controlling dust and humidity… Would you like to consider letting me withdraw the collection?”

O’Keeffe concluded, “If you find the Collection too much of a problem and wish to consider giving it up, let me know so that I can plan what to do with it next.” The letter prompted a response from Johnson reaffirming the school’s commitment to the collection and expressing gratitude for the gift.

Museum officials and art experts said that sales such as the proposed sale of Pollock’s Mural, in which the proceeds would be earmarked for scholarships, would violate American Association of Museums guidelines, which prohibit the use of art-sale proceeds for any purpose other than accessioning other works.

O’Harrow further said that such a sale would “send 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.”

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