Thursday, February 5, 2009

What price for the Pollock would be an offer UI shouldn't refuse? $200 million? $500 million?

Draft of Saturday's "Our View" for the Iowa City Press-Citizen Editorial Board:

Last month, the University of Iowa Museum of Art announced that Jackson Pollock’s famous “Mural” would be returning to Iowa. Sometime in mid-April, the painting — which has been stored in an undisclosed Chicagoland location ever since floodwaters first threatened the the museum last summer — will be on display at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport. The painting will be part of an exhibit titled, “University of Iowa Museum of Art: Pollock’s Mural and Modern Masterworks, a Legacy for Iowa.”

But some Iowa lawmakers already are beginning to count up how much money the state could make by selling off the most valuable and highly recognized work in the university’s collection.

State Sen. Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines) has suggested that selling the painting could provide up to $200 million and would help the Iowa state Board of Regents keep tuition costs as low as possible for Iowa students. (Click here for story ).

“If the college believes that owning up to a $200 million painting is more important than keeping tuition low they’ll continue to retain it,” McCoy told the Des Moines Register. “If they decide keeping tuition low and helping students find a job in the toughest economic downturn since the great Depression is more important, then sell it.”

It hard to believe that the Des Moines senator is correct in his belief the university could get more than the $150 million that the painting is insured for. McCoy and everyone else who is salivating over the prospects of selling this painting should keep in mind that works of art — like houses — are really only worth what someone is willing pay for them. Just as the housing market has fallen drastically, so has as the market for expensive works of art.

If McCoy is suggesting that the university offer its most famous assets at fire sale prices, then his suggestion seems more of a chance to make some quick political points at UI’s expense rather than an opportunity to spell out any practical solutions in these hard economic times.

Those looking to sell the painting for a quick profit should learn a lesson from Brandeis University, which is in the middle of taking an even more drastic step. Last month, Brandeis’ trustees approved a plan to close the Massachusetts school’s 48-year-old Rose Art Museum. According to the Wall Street Journal, Brandeis also intends to sell the museum’s entire 7,180-piece art collection, which was last appraised in 2006 at about $350 million — UI’s 12,000-piece collection is insured for about $500 million

Brandeis’ decision has been meet with almost universal condemnation by educational, art and museum associations. Although the trustees might be willing to ride out such bad publicity, they now have to worry that current and future donors may be less likely to give to the institution because of how it has become so mercenary in its attempts to turn treasured donations into quick cash.

But perhaps McCoy is right to get UI officials and the regents thinking about whether there is a dollar amount that, if a collector was willing to pay, they could not refuse: $200 million? $300 million? $500 million? Maybe the economic situation has reached the point that the painting should be put up for sale with a secret, extremely high reserve price. If a collector were to go over the top, then UI should take the money.

Pollock’s “Mural” has been a part of UI’s identity for three generations, and we hope it will remain part of Iowa’s legacy for generations to come. But — to invoke a car analogy — owning a Ferrari isn’t wise if you can’t afford to pay for gas. UI officials are facing high gas prices, and they can’t drive a mural — even a Pollock.

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