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Pollock relatives, Guggenheim against Mural sale

BY ALISON SULLIVAN and ARIANA WITT | FEBRUARY 21, 2011 7:20 AM

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Last weekend, Jackson Pollock’s relatives gathered to discuss one of their distant cousin’s most famous paintings, deciding they wanted it to stay in Iowa. Fifty years ago, the woman who donated Mural to the University of Iowa Museum of Art made it clear she felt the same way.

But neither have any claims to the $140 million work.

Today, the Iowa House Appropriations Committee is set to discuss a controversial bill that would force the UI to sell the piece to fund scholarships for art students. However, if it passes the House, several state senators say it has little chance in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Correspondences between former UI administrators, art specialists, and Mural donor Peggy Guggenheim reveal that the university frequently considered selling the work throughout the 1960s, according to roughly 200 documents obtained by The Daily Iowan.

But Guggenheim was outwardly against the idea, her letters show. And some of Pollock’s relatives say they hope her desires are honored.

“Peggy [Guggenheim] didn’t want to see it go anywhere, and I’d like to see her wishes upheld,” said Leigh Kelley, a third cousin of the artist. “It’s nice to have the work in Iowa because there are still so many Pollocks in the state.”

Guggenheim was Pollock’s greatest patron, taking a chance on a still-unknown artist when she funded much of his work and commissioned Mural.

Guggenheim originally gave the piece to the UI in 1951 because she had no more space, and Mural went on display in the Main Library.

In 1961, Guggenheim wrote to the UI after hearing the university had another Pollock painting of hers, Portrait of H.M., and expressed interest in trading a different piece of art for the Mural. The trade never occurred, and instead, talk of selling the painting surfaced one year later among UI officials — the money would have gone to fund scholarships and art supplies.

But Guggenheim made it clear she did not want the painting sold, asking for the painting back several times.

“If this is true, it is extremely unpleasant for me that you should sell my gift when there are so many museums in the world who would be delighted to own this wonderful painting,” Guggenheim wrote in 1963.

Former UI President Virgil Hancher assured Guggenheim that selling was never an intention and noted that the university was looking into building an art museum.

Around that time, UI officials were so concerned regarding Guggenheim’s behavior toward the painting that they sought legal advice from a UI law professor regarding the legality of her suggested attempts at reclaiming the gift.

Sean O’Harrow, the director of the UI Art Museum, said more than 90 percent of the works in the museum were gifts, and donors have expressed concern about the future of their own donations after recent events.

“[Reputation] takes years, decades, to build, and a matter of days to destroy,” he said.

Though Jackson Pollock was born in Wyoming, many of his relatives remain in southern Iowa.

Kelley said her grandfather, Lynn Pollock, who lived in Mount Ayr, Iowa, was Jackson Pollock’s immediate cousin. Kelley’s great aunt and uncle adopted Jackson’s father, born LeRoy McCoy, after his parents died.

LeRoy and his wife, Stella, graduated from Tingley High School in Iowa in 1895, said Kelley, who lives in Virginia.

Linda Dolecheck still remembers the day she stumbled across a book about Jackson Pollock in her art class at Mount Ayr High.

Born under the name Pollock, Dolecheck said she’d always wondered if she was linked to the famed painter.

“My mother would always say we weren’t related,” said Dolecheck, 35. “I think everyone hopes they have some kind of relation to a well-known person.”

But last week, she discovered her mother was wrong — the famed artist is her third-cousin. And Jackson Pollock’s parents grew up about 20 minutes from her hometown.

Now, she said, she’s attached to the idea of the painting remaining with the UI.

“I’d like to see it stay with the university,” Dolecheck said. “It would be a shame to see it sold.”

Mural’s cultural importance to Iowa, along with the large numbers of relatives living in the state, are important reasons for the painting to stay at the UI Museum of Art, said Henry Adams, a professor of art history at the Case Western Reserve University and a Pollock expert.

“If you take away the culture of the region, there’s not much reason to go there,” Adams said.

Rep. Ralph Watts, R-Adel, who voted in favor of the bill while it was in subcommitee, said he respects the opinions of Pollock’s family but thinks Iowa legislators need to ensure state institutions are doing everything to properly fund the education of students.

“It’s a discussion that really is outside the art community,” Watts said. “Funding may be part of the larger discussion with the painting in the middle.”

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, said he feels the proposal’s intentions are geared toward making institutions consider how they use state funds and doesn’t believe the bill will get far.

“They’re trying to make a point,” Jacoby said, adding he doesn’t know of any attempts by either Pollock or Guggenheim family members to obtain the painting.

The Iowa Pollocks have never inherited any of Jackson Pollock’s pieces, Kelley said, and have no legal rights to his paintings.

Still, “It’s wrong to sell the art like this,” said James Pollock, Kelley’s father. “It was a gift, and that fact is not something that should be taken lightly.”

Karole Vail, Guggenheim’s granddaughter, declined to comment on Sunday.

Adams said within the art world, the matter is “abhorrent.”

“I think the irony of this is that this is being presented as a sort of conservative move,” Adams said. “But it’s much more like the things the communists did when they took over Russia and took away property from people.”


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