We had a little (by which I mean “big”) deaccessioning drama play out in Iowa over the last couple weeks. You’d be forgiven for not catching it; this isn’t exactly national news fodder, for all it should be. But I’m telling you about it now.
The University of Iowa has a Jackson Pollock painting. I bet you didn’t know that. Just like the Museum of Modern Art, the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA) has a Pollock. And not just a sketch, but a large, important, relatively early painting gifted to the university by Peggy Guggenheim and appropriately titled Mural. It is easily the state’s most famous painting.
After the 2008 flood, which destroyed the art museum, Mural was relocated to the Figge Museum in Davenport, about an hour away. Its house, which is to say, the museum building, has not been rebuilt — the collection is dispersed between the Figge, the Iowa Memorial Union, the Studio Art building, and others — and soon after the waters receded there were calls to sell the Pollock to offset the costs of repairing flood damage. They quickly died down. One wonders what the point of rebuilding an art museum would be, if the Pollock were not inside.
But we don’t have to go anywhere near these philosophical questions, for it is not allowed on purely legal grounds. Peggy Guggenheim plainly donated the painting with the expectation that it be used in teaching, and she wrote that the Pollock should be returned to her, rather than sold, if ever the museum wished to deaccession it. As the UIMA pointed out, if her descendants chose to pursue the matter in court, “We could end up losing the work with no compensation.” Moreover, the American Association of Museums specifies that proceeds from the sale of deaccessioned works can only be put toward acquisitions or direct care of the collection. You can’t sell a painting to pay for a new carpet. You can’t sell a painting to raise salaries, or otherwise cover operational costs. And, it should be abundantly clear, you cannot sell a painting to fund an entirely separate scholarship program.
It should be abundantly clear, yes, but this did not stop State Representative Scott Raecker, Republican (of course*) from proposing a bill that would have forced the university to sell the Pollock to create a trust fund. (*Side note: Yes, it is always Republicans, and yes, I do feel compelled to point this out, if only to draw further attention to the blazing hypocrisy of a political party that crows “small government! no government intrusion!” while somewhere finding the gall to reach into a single art museum and remove a single painting. We saw this on a much larger scale this winter, when the Republican Congress threatened to pull the National Portrait Gallery’s funding over a four-minute video. But I’m sure you remember that mess. So let’s move on.)
The question of funding arts and (not versus) funding scholarships is a challenging and important one, all the more so during trying financial times. But we must ask, again, what is the point of funding art history or studio art students (as the bill would have, sort of) if they don’t have any art to study? The trade-off is so clearly, so blatantly, so horns-blowingly nonsensical, and thankfully other representatives realized this. The Pollock story has a happy ending: the bill died in the legislature after just twelve days. Mural remains safe in its cozy Iowa home.