Panel votes to sell Pollock painting despite UI pleas


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DES MOINES — An Iowa House subcommittee voted on Wednesday in favor of legislation that would force the University of Iowa to sell the state’s most famous work of art to fund student scholarships.

The two Republicans on the three-person panel — Rep. Ralph Watts, R-Adel, and Rep. Nick Wagner, R-Marion — voted in favor of the bill. The lone Democrat on the panel, Rep. Patrick Murphy of Dubuque, voted against it. The legislation — which would require the sale of the UI’s donated Jackson Pollock painting, Mural — will now go to the full Iowa House Appropriations Committee.

The vote came after UI officials and state Board of Regents President David Miles asked legislators at the State Capitol Wednesday not to pass the bill.

The debate centered on what is more valuable: funding scholarships or keeping the Pollock’s Mural painting. The piece of art, estimated to be worth $140 million, was donated by Peggy Guggenheim to the UI in 1951, when she chose Iowa over Yale University.

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“What is the central role of the UI, to build a museum or educate students?” asked Watts, the chairman of the subcommittee.

UI officials said the painting is a vital part of the university’s art program, and selling it would destroy relationships with any potential art donors.

At the meeting, held in the Supreme Court Chamber of the State Capitol, Sean O’Harrow, the director of the UI Museum of Art, said the sale of the Pollock painting would “destroy the credibility” of the museum.

Several museum accreditation associations have said the sale would go against nationally recognized museum ethical guidelines.

A series of letters between Guggenheim and UI art officials make it clear she intended her gift to serve in the education of students, said UI General Counsel Carroll Reasoner.

A potential sale in 1962 led Guggenheim to threaten to take back the painting from the School of Art.

“There is a risk that this action might result in not having the art and not having the money at the end of the day,” Reasoner said.

Regent Michael Gartner proposed selling the painting in 2008 to pay for flood recovery on the Arts Campus, but officials decided against the sale. He said recently that he still supports selling the work.

But the sale could make it difficult for the university’s art school to distinguish itself from other institutions, such as online programs, O’Harrow said.

“If it isn’t for the opportunity to study original works of art, why would people choose us?” he said.
O’Harrow, who has a Ph.D. in art history, said he was not always a fan of Pollock’s work. He said he once thought that “a dog could do it.”

“Now, I’m in love with his art,” he said.

Watts said the goal of the bill is to provide tuition funding for arts students, not to destroy the university.

“If we can use those proceeds from that sale to fund tuition, books, and fees for more than 1,000 students every year, it makes sense to me,” he said.

But Democratic legislators have said the bill has little chance of passing the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The painting is valued at $140 million, but Watts said the bill would require it be sold for at least $120 million.

While Miles said there is a need for more scholarships for art students at the UI, he opposes the sale of the painting to fund them.

“It doesn’t make sense to me to dismantle a world-class museum,” he said.

UI President Sally Mason was not present at the discussion, but she sent a statement with her views on the proposed bill.

“We cannot break the trust of our donors,” she said. “We must honor those wishes and requests.”
Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said the issue is “a waste of time” and hurts the UI’s image.

“There are many subcommittees that never meet, and this should have been one of them,” Mascher said as the meeting adjourned.

Rep. Tyler Olson,D-Cedar Rapids, said he didn’t know exactly when the full committee would debate the bill.

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