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Iowa Brouhaha: WSJ’s Eric Gibson Calls for Enforcement of Deaccession Standards

Eric Gibson, editor of Wall Street Journal’s “Leisure & Arts” page

Eric Gibson, on today’s “Taste” page in the Wall Street Journal, adds his baritone to what he calls the “chorus of condemnation” against the idea of selling the Pollock held by the University of Iowa’s art museum. And he appends a new verse, recommending that the federal government step in to deter future disposals of the public’s art to bankroll operating or capital needs.

Gibson suggests:

Perhaps the time has come for both the National Endowment for the Arts
and the National Endowment for the Humanities to start enforcing
professional standards as well as making grants. They can have a
powerful effect not only because of the money they dispense but also
because other sources of funding follow their lead. Let the NEA and NEH
start withholding support from museums that are so cavalier about their
trusteeship responsibilities. If you can raise money by selling what’s
on your walls, why do you need a handout from Uncle Sam?

Maybe it’s also time for the field’s leading professional organizations (the Association of Art Museum Directors, American Association of Museums, College Art Association and Association of College & University Museums & Galleries) to serve notice on their members that if they don’t adhere to the bedrock principle that art should be sold only to improve the collection, they will not be only censured but also booted out of the associations of their peers. That should at least get the attention of the board members of museums and universities who care about their institutions’ reputations.

But perhaps the definitive commentary on this contretemps has come from a former Iowa City Press-Citizen sportswriter, who in today’s paper puts his tongue in his cheek and praises Michael Gartner (the university trustee who sparked the current firestorm by requesting a financial appraisal of the Pollock), as “the best friend of art in Iowa City.”

Bob Elliott, who is also a former Iowa City Council member, observes:

In the more than 40 years I’ve lived in Iowa City, this has been the
greatest outpouring of emotion in support of the value and necessity of
art. As a result, Pollock’s “Mural” has been a hotter topic than the Hawkeyes’ quarterback. And heading into fall in Iowa City, that’s saying something—about both the Hawkeyes and the painting.

first realized the power of such a psychological move years ago when
then Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes observed that the best way to get rid of a
bad law is to enforce it. Similarly, my father told me the best way to
make someone stop taking something for granted is threaten to take it

So like it or not, Gartner has energized our collective interest in art….At this point, I doubt we’ll hear much more about the possibility of selling it.

As I suggested here, the Iowa brouhaha may paradoxically turn into a win-win—raising national consciousness about proper
university museum stewardship and also about the need for a financial
infusion to address the flood-devastated University of Iowa museum’s plight.

In the meantime, maybe the Iowa sports hero who IS a “hotter topic” than Pollock, Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Shawn Johnson, should pay a visit to the University of Iowa after her homecoming next Tuesday at the Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, to endorse not just Wheaties but also the state’s great Pollock!

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