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Repose for Iowa’s Pollock? Museum’s Director Is Optimistic UPDATED WITH AAMD STATEMENT

Pam White, interim director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, leading a media tour through the flood-damaged facility (Photo from the museum’s blog, Art Matters)

[UPDATE AT THE END: AAMD’s just-released statement.]

The blogosphere (including my blog) has been getting bent out of shape about the request by one of the University of Iowa’s board members, Michael Gartner, for an updated appraisal of the Pollock owned by the university’s art museum, which he suggested could help defray the cost of recovering from damage caused by the major June flood. The museum hopes to move to a new, less flood-prone site. The painting had been recently appraised at $100 million for insurance purposes by Sotheby’s.

But while bemoaners of the lost art have been noisily catastrophizing, the university’s art museum director, Pam White, has been quietly taking care of business. In response to my queries yesterday, she said that “the ethical issues involved in any
sale of any part of the collection” have now “been made clear” to the university’s board. White, a lawyer who teaches the class “Art Law and Ethics” and heads Museum Studies at the university, added:

It is my belief that the majority of the Regents (the name of our
governing board) would be opposed to such a sale. The
idea put forth by Regent Gartner was to explore the various things
involved. And now, with all the support for NOT selling, I think they
would not favor any such action.

We can only hope that she’s right. A clear, immediate no-sale statement by the board would put a stop to the criticism.

Opponents to monetizing the Pollock have been forcefully vocal: The Des Moines Register reported that both the university’s president and the state’s lieutenant governor strongly favor retaining the painting. And the Boston Globe‘s Exhibitionist blog quoted Dan Monroe, director of the Peabody Essex Museum and head of the Art Issues committee of the Association of Art Museum Directors, saying (on his own behalf, not as spokesman for AAMD):

Several private colleges and universities have recently chosen to sell works of art to fund operations. Sales of works of art from university art museum collections to support university operations or endowment violates AAMD policy. To date, these unfortunate transactions have taken place at small, financially strapped colleges or universities.

Selling art from a university art museum collection to support university operations reflects financial mismanagement, loss of institutional integrity, and loss of important works of art to students, faculty, and the general public. It is hard to imagine the University of Iowa resorting to such ill-conceived measures given their high standing the the fields of the arts and humanities.

Fisk University and Randolph College: Do you copy?

The Iowa brouhaha may well turn out to be a tempest in a teapot, while having the salutary effect of raising national consciousness about proper university museum stewardship and about the need for a financial infusion to address the University of Iowa museum’s plight, which was described yesterday in harrowing detail by Joel Henning, on the “Leisure & Arts” page of the Wall Street Journal.

: This just in—a letter from the Association of Art Museum Directors to David Miles, president of the University of Iowa’s board of regents. Here’s an excerpt:

The idea of [Pollock’s] “Mural” being sold is an alarming one to museum professionals and art
historians, and should be as well to those who appreciate art from a more laic perspective.
The possibility of the work passing into private hands and becoming unavailable for
study and enjoyment alike is a particularly frightening one.

Its deaccessioning would also
harm the reputation of the University of Iowa Museum of Art; the museum’s ability to
attract future donors of works of art would no doubt diminish, as well as its competitive edge in winning grant awards and fellowships in the field of visual arts. Great schools
have great museums, and the tarnishing of the reputation of the University of Iowa
Museum of Art would certainly reflect on the reputation of the university as a whole.

In this difficult time, as the state of Iowa seeks to rebuild and repair all that it has suffered
in the floods, the university should focus its attentions not on short-term fiscal gain,
however necessary it may be, but keep its eye on the bigger picture: the valuable visual
arts legacy to the people of the state that this painting symbolizes.

As representatives of the board and membership of AAMD, we urge the University of
Iowa Board of Regents not to deaccession Mural from the collection of the university’s
museum of art. We offer you our help in the development of plan or course of action to
preserve your collection intact as a fundamental resource in furthering the university’s
important mission.

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