Inside USD

Keeping Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” Out of Politics

Friday, April 29, 2011

As the morning of Friday the 13th in June of 2008 neared, art expert Robert O’Connell and others faced the frightening prospect that rising floods near the University of Iowa could destroy one of the masterpieces of modern art, Jackson Pollock’s “Mural.”

With financial support, however, from the painting’s insurer, Lloyd’s of London, O’Connell (pictured) helped lead a team that safely removed the 20-foot-wide painting and other works of art from harm’s way. But the spotlight the floods put on the painting led to another disturbing scenario: proposals that the painting, valued at $140 million, could be sold by the state of Iowa to raise revenue, potentially to a private collector.

At USD last week, O’Connell, a 1982 USD graduate who serves on the Alumni Board and is creating an endowment for scholarships for art students with his wife, Darci, discussed the issue in a talk “Museums, Gifts and Acquisitions: Why the Jackson Pollock ‘Mural’ Should Stay Out of Politics.”

“Art needs to be out there in the public for people to see it, to learn from it and be taught by it and the Jackson Pollock piece, as part of the University of Iowa collection, needs to stay there and not be in private hands,” said O’Connell, whose Chicago-based firm, O’Connell International Arts Inc., provides arts claims administration, adjusting and consulting services.

The iconic painting, with its abstract representations of buffaloes and other symbols of the American West, was given to the University of Iowa in 1951 by collector Peggy Guggenheim. Since the floods severely damaged the university’s museum, it has been on display at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.

While the state faces financial challenges in recovering from the floods, O’Connell said a sale would be short-sided. “As a collector, it would make me pause about giving my collection in the future to a state-owned university.”

To date, proposals to sell the painting haven’t been approved by the Iowa State Legislature but the painting faces an uncertain future. Whatever the outcome, proposals to sell the painting are part of a trend in these difficult economic times to sell valued pieces of art. Proposals to sell collections also have been made at other universities around the country.

In a panel discussion, O’Connell and Ariel Plotek, curator from The San Diego Museum of Art, talked about how museums sometimes make a decision to sell a piece to enhance or build an institution’s collection. But that is far different, they argued, from a state legislature usurping the museum’s authority and seeing a work of art as a commodity to raise revenue.

The issue prompted a lively debate from those in the audience with a few expressing the opinion that the donor’s gift was no different than writing a check to the institution that could be used as officials see fit.

But O’Connell, who recalled the grandeur of seeing Picasso’s artwork and other masterpieces side by side at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, argued that the value of Pollock’s and other works far outweighs any one-time monetary gain. To have that incredible experience, “still brings a chill to me,” he said.

— Liz Harman

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