And Still More on the Iowa Pollock

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I thought I had had my last say on the (ever dwindling) possibility that the University of Iowa might sell its famous Pollock to raise money to recover from flood damage, but a couple of thoughtful responses to my post from yesterday deserve a reply.

That post was a response to a blog post by Felix Salmon at that supported the idea of Iowa selling the Pollock. What I said yesterday was that he missed the main point. The sale would be another in a string of recent examples, the worst yet, of a university treating its art collection as a piggy bank that it can break into whenever it needs a few extra million. It would dramatically lower the bar for a “justifiable” deaccession.

Salmon calls that a “slippery slope” argument and says he’s generally resistant to those. But that minimizes just how far down the slope the Pollock example brings us. The slippery slope started last year with the persistent attempts by Fisk University (unsuccessful so far) and Randolph College (partly accomplished) to sell off parts of their collections. If Iowa joined the list, it would mean that the dismal trend those schools set in motion was accelerating in a big way. They at least had the excuse of facing financial binds so serious that their accreditation was in jeopardy. To put it mildly, the University of Iowa is facing nothing like that kind of threat. It has abundant flood insurance and access to FEMA money. It would still face a shortfall in flood repair dollars, but nothing that would require the sale of the most important painting in the collection of the campus museum. Salmon says he’s not try to legitimize “asset stripping”, but that’s exactly what this completely inessential proposed sale would do.

It’s worth mentioning in this connection that university collections are particularly vulnerable to this kind of attack precisely because they’re part of larger institutions. A trustee for a museum in the outside world is responsible solely for the well being of that museum. But campus museums are subject to the decision making power of regents and trustees who oversee the entire school. Those museums need bright line rules in place to protect them from school officials who may not know much or care much about the collection, even at a campus, like the University of Iowa, that has a well known art school. The Museum of Modern Art might decide, as it did a few years ago, that it has enough de Chiricos in storage to justify its decision to sell a few. But it’s not going to sell off centerpieces of its collection like Les Desmoiselles or its Cezanne Bather. But apparently at Iowa it’s possible to make exactly that kind of suggestion.

Salmon also says that the main reason he would favor a sale is that the Pollock is too important to remain in the Iowa collection. But how encyclopedic does a museum have to be before it “deserves” a pivotal work of art? The University of Iowa museum may not be MOMA but it’s not exactly a broom closet. It has work by Matisse, Picasso, Miro, Beckmann and abstract canvases by Philip Guston, Richard Diebenkorn and Sam Gilliam, plus works on paper dating back to Durer.

Meanwhile, over at his always indispensable Art Law Blog, Donn Zaretsky takes me to task for saying that the unwholesome precedent a Pollock sale would set “trumps any and all other benefits a sale might bring”. It’s important, he says, not to oppose deaccessioning categorically but to examine each case on its merits. In sufficiently dire situations, some sales are justifiable. To which I would answer, yes, that’s true, but not in this case. For the record, I even proposed last year that, as a way to avoid the calamitous relocation of the Barnes collection to a new home in Philadelphia, the Barnes would be better off to take the otherwise unjustifiable step of selling off a major canvas, one that would bring in enough money to replenish its endowment. Sometimes your back really is up against a wall. But that’s not where Iowa is.

In related news, Eric Gibson, the leisure & arts features editor of the Wall Street Journal, published a piece in his own paper today condemning the suggested sale and proposing this:

Perhaps the time has come for both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities to start enforcing professional standards as well as making grants. They can have a powerful effect not only because of the money they dispense but also because other sources of funding follow their lead. Let the NEA and NEH start withholding support from museums that are so cavalier about their trusteeship responsibilities. If you can raise money by selling what’s on your walls, why do you need a handout from Uncle Sam?