Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Value of Jackson Pollock's "Mural"

Jackson Pollock [1912-1956] painted Mural in one energetic outburst in 1943 (or possibly 1944). Commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim, who gave him carte blanche, it is his largest work, measuring approximately 8' by 20', and arguably his finest. Pollock himself remarked that: "It was a stampede...[of] every animal in the American West, cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across that goddamn surface." Guggenheim eventually donated Mural to the University of Iowa in October 1951, where it is today the centerpiece of the Art Museum's extensive collections.

The catastrophic flooding of the Iowa River in 2008, however, resulted in many of the collections being temporarily housed at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa (where Mural is currently being featured in the exhibition: A Legacy for Iowa). In the aftermath of the flood, controversy ensued when Michael Gartner of the Iowa Board of Regents floated the notion of selling Pollock's Mural, which has an estimated value of $140 million. In the face of widespread opposition from the University, citizens of the state, and others, nothing came of this proposal.

Last week the idea of selling the painting resurfaced, with the introduction into the Iowa General Assembly of House Study Bill 84 by Representative Scott Raecker (R-Urbandale), who is Chair of the House Appropriations Committee. The bill proposes that:
The state board of regents shall provide for the sale of the Jackson
Pollock painting, “Mural”, held by the state university of Iowa. The proceeds from the sale shall be credited to a trust fund. Usage of the moneys in the trust fund shall be limited to providing scholarship assistance to undergraduate students at the university who are residents of this state and majoring in art.
Predictably, this has also met with staunch disapprobation. The University of Iowa's Faculty Senate President Ed Dove is quoted in the Press-Citizen (Iowa City) as stating: "Getting rid of that national asset, the Pollock painting, would be a disaster for the university." In addition to numerous local voices of opposition, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the American Association of Museums, the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, and the Task Force on University and College Museums have issued a joint statement, which observes that:
[We] 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.
Given the fact that the Iowa Senate has a Democratic majority, the proposed bill is unlikely to pass--at least during the present legislative session.

For further reading on Pollock's masterpiece, the book Human Rights / Human Wrongs: Art and Social Change (Iowa City: The University of Iowa Museum of Art, 1986) is recommended. It contains two essays and a poem devoted to Pollock: "Pollock's Mural," by Prof. Rudolf Kuenzli (Comparative Literature); "Human Wrongs: Jackson Pollock's Mural," by Prof. Antonio R. Damasio (Neurology); and "Pollock and Canvas," by Jorie Graham (Iowa Writers' Workshop).

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