Proposal calls for UI to sell Jackson Pollock 'Mural' to fund student scholarships

The University of Iowa Museum of Art's
The University of Iowa Museum of Art's "Mural" by Jackson Pollock hangs at the Figge Art Museum. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A bill introduced today in the Iowa House calls on the University of Iowa to sell its famous Jackson Pollock “Mural” painting, valued at $140 million, to set up a trust fund for student scholarships.

Rep. Scott Raecker, R-Urbandale, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the funds would go into an endowment that could provide $5 million a year for scholarships for resident students at the UI majoring in art. If the interest drawn down annually totaled more than $5 million, it go to students majoring in other liberal arts, he said.

House Study Bill 84 includes a provision that the famous painting must be on the UI campus for at least three months every four years as a condition of the sale, so students could still use it for educational purposes.

“We need to have the discussion. If we have an asset valued at $100 million to $150 million, it had been in storage in Chicago, now at a museum at Davenport, are we not better served to have those resources deployed to actually educate Iowa students in the arts?” Raecker said.

UI Spokesman Tom Moore, when asked about the bill Wednesday, said university officials “won’t be discussing the topic at all.” State Board of Regents President David Miles also had no comment.

UI Museum of Art Director Sean O’Harrow was out of the office and unavailable for comment.

But when O’Harrow was hired last August, he called the idea of selling the Pollock, which has come up in the past, “ludicrous.”

“It’s like selling your grandmother. I don’t think you can sell your culture,” O’Harrows said in August. “Doing such a thing would only give ammunition to those people who criticize our state as a place where we don’t respect or appreciate culture. There is no way that can happen.”

The bill was discussed by members of the Appropriations Committee Wednesday but no action was taken.

“Mural” and the rest of the UI Museum of Art collection was removed from campus during the June 2008 flood. It was stored in Chicago for many months after the flood. Some of the art is back on display on the UI campus but “Mural,” along with many other pieces, is on display at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport. The UI’s 12,000-piece collection is insured for $500 million, with the Pollock valued at about $140 million.

Raecker said if the painting is sold but required to be back on the UI campus every few years, that’s more than it has been on display there in recent years.

The original gift of the painting to the university did not include restrictions about selling it, Raecker said. Any questions about whether using the assets from the sale for scholarships rather than for the purchase of more art is not a legal question, but rather an ethics question for museum associations, he said.

UI officials in the past have said selling the painting and using the money for anything other than the purchase of more art would put the UI museum’s accreditation in jeopardy, which could hamper future art loans and donations.

When asked by state legislators in 2009 about selling “Mural” to use the proceeds for flood recovery, UI President Sally Mason said “I have never viewed our artwork as disposable or a transactional asset because these are gifts and they were entrusted to us.”

Rep. Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, the ranking Democratic on the House Appropriations Committee, said the Democrats did not discuss the bill. Olson said it’s fair that legislators look at how the state is using its assets and resources, but “someone will have to make a pretty strong case to sell it.”

“We have to look at the soft value, the educational value of having it,” he said. “If the Legislature is really concerned about making tuition affordable, then this is a sideshow and we should be talking about fully funding the regents.”

Raecker said he knows the discussion has come up in the past, and he thinks given the state’s budget, it’s time to talk about it again and see what opportunity is there.

“Could we better deploy those resources?” Raecker said. “The Legislature has a role to determine the best utilization of resources to fulfill the mission. If the mission is to educate Iowans and we have this asset, we as legislators we should at least have the discussion.”– Reporter James Q. Lynch contributed to this article.

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