Jackson Pollock, Costs and Benefits, and How to Treat Gifts Received

Russell Valentino

There’s an old Russian joke that starts with a man asking a woman, “Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?” “Well, maybe,” she says. “How about for twenty?” he asks. “What do you think I am, some kind of prostitute!?” “We’ve already established that,” he says. “Now we’re just haggling over the price.” Those offended by the obvious misogynism can give the woman the lead. That’s not the point.

Iowa legislators are considering forcing the University of Iowa’s Museum of Art to sell Jackson Pollock’s Mural, a gift from Peggy Guggenheim to the university in 1951. The bill under consideration, House Study Bill 84, would require that proceeds from the sale be used for scholarships to Iowa resident students majoring in art or, if there’s enough money, to students with other liberal arts majors. The painting’s value was estimated at $140 million in 2008. That’s a lot of scholarships.

Clearly some such rationale is behind the proposed sale. If you need money to support students, take a hard look at your assets. What do you have that you could part with? A big ticket item like the Pollock draws a lot of attention because it’s one big thing, as opposed to a bunch of little ones. The Pollock also comes to mind because, ever since the flood of 2008, the university hasn’t had any place to show it. For now, the painting is on display in the exhibition A Legacy for Iowa: Pollock's Mural and Modern Masterworks from the University of Iowa Museum of Art, at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa. It could be several years before a new art museum display space for the work is available at the university. So why not sell it?

If you're doing this kind of cost-benefit analysis and you're doing it right, then you need to really consider what the potential costs might be in order to make a sound judgment. Others have pointed out some of these. First, the sale might threaten the museum's accreditation. Second, as the painting was a gift to the university, and its potential sale has drawn a great deal of attention, it's likely that other potential donors, and not just potential museum donors, will be discouraged from making donations in the future. This is something that anyone in fundraising will see immediately, and legislators who raise money for their campaigns will see it, too--if your donors think you're not using their money right, they'll stop being your donors. It’s the equivalent of disrespecting your donor base, which could seriously harm the university’s attempts to make up the difference in decreased state allocations of the past several years. In other words, the university has been encouraged to turn more toward the private sector in order to fund itself by the same legislature that is now acting in a way that may in fact harm its ability to turn to the private sector to fund itself.

Third, the fact that the donor expressed an explicit preference against the university's selling the work introduces a potentil legal cost. In a 1963 letter to then University of Iowa President Virgil Hancher, Guggenheim wrote, "If you no longer wish to have this mural in your university, I must ask you to return it to me." Should her heirs, or the Guggenheim Foundation, or some interested third party choose to pursue this in court, the museum could end up losing the work without compensation, and also, ironically, paying to try and prevent that from happening.

There may be other potential costs involved, but there's one I would place at the end of these, as it seems the most important. It has to do with the way one treats gifts, not strategically, as when you're in the fundraising business, but as people. It's about what selling them--when you might happen to want the cash for something else--says about the sort of institution you run, the sort of people your institution is made of. This includes members of the university's art community, its administration, the regents, the state legislature, and the governor. You're given a very special, very public gift. Selling it for $120 million or for twenty bucks puts you in the same category either way. At that point, once you're ready to have that conversation, like in the old Russian joke, whether you're willing to admit the ugly defect in your character or not, you're just haggling over how much it's going to cost.