Officials: restoration of Pollock's Mural in LA will bring exposure to UI


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Jackson Pollock's splatter-paint technique may appear random and free-flowing, but conservation of the University of Iowa's nearly $150 million Pollock piece, Mural, is an exact science.

The painting will take a trip to Los Angeles in the next two weeks, where the Getty Conservation Institute — regarded as one of the world's leading art-conservation programs — will embark on a two-year restoration and research project as a part of its Modern Paints Program.

After conservation is complete, Mural will spend three months on display at the J. Paul Getty museum, which will benefit the university, said Sean O'Harrow, the director of the UI Museum of Art.

"It promotes the University of Iowa and University of Iowa Museum of Art to a wider audience around the world, particularly at a time when we need to raise our profile to raise the funds to build a new museum. The words 'no' and 'brainer' come to mind," he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency granted the UI more than $112 million in renovation funds earlier this year but denied the university's second appeal for funding to replace the Art Museum.

The Getty has partnered with the UI to provide the conservation work free of charge.

"To have the opportunity to work with [the Getty] is a dream come true for the institution," O'Harrow said. "It was a way to put Iowa on the world map in terms of cultural offerings."

The timing is also ideal for the university, he said, because the Art Museum's facility was heavily damaged in the 2008 flood. Mural spent the last three years on display at the Figge Museum in Davenport before moving in April to the Des Moines Art Center, where it will be showcased until July 15.

"It's difficult to describe, but this is such a large project — it's physically large as well as really important, so the timing had to be right for them and for us," O'Harrow said. "In order to take this painting in, they had to clear their lab."

O'Harrow said the painting last underwent restoration in the 1970s, during which a coating of varnish was added to the canvas. The varnish has aged over the last several decades and was the main indicator that the painting was in need of new conservation.

"People have to realize that one major part of a museum's mission is to conserve and protect art for future generations, so conservation is a regular activity that we must engage in," he said. "Essentially, we've been putting it off for a number of generations."

Art donor Gerald Solomons said conserving pieces is crucial to maintaining good relationships with those who donate. Solomons — a UI professor emeritus of pediatrics — has donated art to the Art Museum for more than 17 years.

"As a donor, if I give something to the university with strings attached, I expect the university to carry out my wishes," he said. "That happened with the Mural and Peggy Guggenheim."

Mural was the center of controversy at the UI in February 2011 after Rep. Scott Raecker, R-Urbandale, introduced a highly disputed bill that would force the university to sell the famous painting to fund scholarships for art students.

The proposal drew much criticism from those who argued that Mural's educational benefits outweighed its $140 million pricetag. The bill was withdrawn.

O'Harrow said, Guggenheim bestowed the work, considered to be the most influential piece of art since World War II, on the UI instead of competitors such as Yale University because of its tradition of progressive art education — hiring working artists as professors before any other school in the nation.

Solomons said visual art isn't just for art majors — it's for anyone who can see it.

The Pollock painting has attracted tens of thousands of viewers in Iowa City, and Des Moines Art Center Marketing Director Christine Doolittle said museum attendance this May increased 40 percent over 2011's because of the Mural.

"We're thrilled to have it. … People walk in the door and ask at the front desk, 'Where's the Pollock painting?' " she said.

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