That Iowa Pollock

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Mural, Jackson Pollock, 1943 /UNIVERSITY OF IOWA MUSEUM OF ART

While I was away, there was at least one major art world news blow up. It’s since blown down a bit, but it’s still worth keeping a close eye on. That was the proposal by Michael Gartner, a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Iowa, to have the University take steps to estimate the market value of Jackson Pollock’s Mural. That’s one of the most important paintings of Pollock’s career — the key work in his evolution towards the all-over drip paintings — and the jewel in the crown of the University’s art museum.

Why the sudden need to know how much this painting might be worth? The Iowa campus suffered significant damage in last month’s flooding. The sale of a Pollock that would almost certainly bring more than $100 million could cover some of the cost.

It would also be a terrible idea. As anyone who follows these issues is aware, Fisk University in Tennessee and Randolph College in Virginia have taken steps in recent years to liquidate parts of their art collections as a way to raise money to cover serious revenue shortfalls. (More serious in both cases than the one faced by Iowa, but we’ll get to that.) Both attempts set off huge fights over the wisdom and the institutional ethics of selling off art to cover a school’s general budget problems. And both of them opened up the possibility that in a moment of still escalating prices for the best works, schools all over the country would start looking at their art collections as a piggy bank, even for less pressing needs. Need a new hockey rink? Why bother with fund raising, just truck that Monet over to an auction house.

At this point it helps to have a picture of just how big an outlay the University of Iowa faces to clean up the mess left behind by the floodwaters. The Des Moines Register reported recently that the U. of I. estimates it suffered $232 million in damage from the floods. Damage to the University’s arts campus is estimated at $52 million. The paper also reports that the school has $250 million in flood insurance, but that there’s a cap of $40 million for buildings in the “100 year flood plain”. Though the school expects that damage to buildings in that zone will exceed the cap, it can also apply to FEMA for funds to cover the gap. I’m not an insurance adjuster, but if the Register‘s numbers are correct, it appears to me that the real cost of the clean up will be less than staggering.

As I mentioned up top, this controversy has been dialed back a bit over the past week, largely I’m sure because there was a quick backlash to the trial balloon. Bloggers, especially Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes, sounded an alarm early and often. The chairman of the art issues committee of the Association of Art Museum Directors got into the fight. Iowa papers, including the Register, editorialized against the sale. The Museum’s interim director Pam White, who is obviously opposed to any sale, has said that University donors started getting in touch with her to ask whether the museum planned to sell any of their gifts, and threatening never to contribute again if that happened. The office of Iowa’s Gov. Chet Culver told Green that Culver believes the university should seek those insurance payments and federal recovery dollars before it even considers the sale of an irreplaceable asset. And so on.

All those negative reactions seem to have had some effect. Gartner, the Iowa Regent (and former president of NBC News) who proposed the pricing exercise has been emphasizing that even he doesn’t support a sale. He just wants the school to fully explore its options. Well, selling the Pollock should not be an option. All the same, the Board of Regents is still going forward with its effort to determine the painting’s market value. There’s no deadline set for when it has to report back with the magic number, but we should all be watching. This attempt to “monetize” a university collection should stop right where it started.