iowa’s pollock

just when you think things can’t get any worse…

after the university of iowa suffered $232-odd-million in damage to buildings built in a flood plane this summer, the board of regents, at the suggestion of  regent michael gartner, proposed exploring the value of the university’s jackson pollock painting, “mural.”

the painting was initially painted as a commission for the entry to peggy guggenheim’s townhouse in 1943.   when she moved to venice in 1947, she didn’t have room for the painting and offered to give it to the university of iowa if they’d pay for shipping.    in 1951 the bureaucracy finally managed to get the painting to the university, where it apparently was stored for years before being permanently displayed.

the painting is the highlight of the university museum’s (quite decent) collection.    actually, highlight is an understatement.    “mural” marked a turning point in pollock’s work.    it is one of his most important paintings and by extension one of the most important american paintings of the 20th century.  “mural” is spectacular — masculine and muscular and energetic.    not one of the  “drip paintings” for which he became famous, but the painting that is the direct precursor to that work.  historically, extremely important.    compositionally and energetically, i think it’s more successful than the drip paintings.

several years ago, “mural” was appraised at $100 million but on the open market i’d bet it would go (or at least in a more stable financial moment) for at least $140 million, probably more  (in 2006 david geffen sold this painting, “No. 5” (1948), for $140 million – the highest price ever paid for a painting).

why shouldn’t the regents sell it?

where to begin?

1.  the university has $250 million in flood insurance with a $3 million deductible.   damage to the university is estimated at about $232 million.    do the math.     there is a $40 million cap on damage to buildings built in the 100-year flood plane, which they may or may not exceed.    the university doesn’t really need to sell the painting to pay for the flood damage.  at most, the uninsured damage will be a few million dollars and they’re eligible for FEMA money.   this is the single most valuable asset (other than the road system) owned by the state.    in the 57 years the state has owned it, it’s value has gone from $5,000 to $140,000,000.   the regents want to force the sale of this painting not because the institution is in financial ruin, or because the painting doesn’t fit the collection or isn’t a good work of art, but because it is valuable (though clearly not to them).    ummmmm,  isn’t that a reason to keep it?     there are lots of rumors about why the regents are hot to sell (an interesting though unsubstantiated one has to do with lawsuits stemming the cover up of sexual assaults by university of iowa football players), but it’s probably simply greed.

2.   if the regents were to force a sale of the painting, the museum would likely lose its certification with the american association of museums (deaccessioning for purposes other than to build a museum’s collection is forbidden).   while that might not mean much to the regents, it is the death-knell for a museum.   they can’t borrow works (or take traveling shows) from other institutions.   the university art museum would essentially no longer a “professional” museum.

3.   selling an object that is donated to a museum — particularly  a high profile one — has a chilling effect on future gifts.     people give things to museums so that they know the public will have access to them forever.    who would donate something important to a museum that may later sell it because it has appreciated in value?

4.   want to get disrespected by the political/financial/intellectual powers?   sell the most historically and aesthetically important thing in your museum.   for that matter, your state.    it makes you look shallow and uncultured.

5.   how do you keep the brightest and most creative students at your state universities?   or keep them in the state after they’ve graduated?   or attract the best academic talent to your universities?   not by selling your important and famous art work…

6.   this is about cultural stewardship.   the regents have a responsibility to future generations to preserve something important.   i know, we’re not talking about blowing up the bamyan buddhas…  “mural”  wouldn’t be destroyed and might go into another public collection.   but students and the people of iowa won’t have access to it.   it would be long-term loss (for short-term gain) for the university and state to lose it to a collection in new york or moscow…

full disclosure.   i went to law school at the university of iowa and have a deep attachment to “mural” not just because of its historical and aesthetic importance.     it’s my pollock.    the one i know best.   i feel pride in the university and the state b/c of it.

if, god forbid, “mural” is to be sold, sell it in a public auction and please, please, please sell it to sfmoma or don fisher.    i’ve missed it.

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