Here we go again with the Iowa Jackson Pollock sale


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Iowa Republicans have apparently spent too much time watching ‘Antiques Roadshow.’ A few years ago, they discovered there was an heirloom in the attic that they didn’t know was worth a pile of money, and since then all they can think of is, ‘Let’s sell it!’

For the second time, Republicans in the Iowa House have introduced a bill to force the University of Iowa to sell its irreplaceable Jackson Pollock masterpiece, ‘Mural’ (1943), this time to use the revenue for scholarship assistance. In 2008, there was a clamor to sell the painting -- part of the university’s 12,000-piece collection -- in order to offset costs of $743 million in severe flood damage that had destroyed part of the school.


House Study Bill 84 was introduced Wednesday by state Rep. Scott Raecker (R-Urbandale), who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

The painting, a pivotal work in Pollock’s storied career and a 1951 gift to the university from collector Peggy Guggenheim, is estimated to be worth $140 million. Since the floods, the Pollock and other works from the university’s collection have been on loan to the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, while the school repairs its own severely flood-damaged museum building.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the sell-the-Pollock bill’s backers that had the Legislature forced the painting’s sale to fix one problem in 2008, they wouldn’t still have it around to fix another problem in 2011. That’s a basic reason that museums have strict rules against regarding art in their collections as fungible assets that can be sold off to pay unrelated bills.

Once the Pollock was gone, someone would tell the Legislature that the university’s great Max Beckmann painting was also worth a lot of cash. And how about that Ad Reinhardt? And -- well, you get the idea. Eventually, the university museum’s collection would only include the stuff without a robust market. To remind the pols in Des Moines what’s at stake, the nation’s two most prominent museum-professional associations got together Friday to holler through a joint megaphone: Stop!

Short but sweet, the statement the says:

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Association of Museums (AAM) are alarmed to learn of the recent proposal to sell the Jackson Pollock painting Mural to underwrite costs at The University of Iowa. 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.

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. We offer our support and call on the arts community to help prevent this permanent and irredeemable loss for the University and the people of the state of Iowa.


Whether an ethical appeal will resonate with state politicians is anybody’s guess.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen reported that, last fall, state Sen. David Johnson (R-Ocheyedan) said he would be in favor of selling the Pollock painting, which he described as ‘a fraud.’ (Honest.) This week, the paper reported that ‘State Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said he has spoken to Democratic Senate leaders, who control the chamber, and they said the Senate would oppose the bill if it passes the Republican-led House.’

-- Christopher Knight