Saturday, October 1, 2022

Can Iowa “backwater” Hicks Appreciate Pollock?

We’ve refrained from writing about the Iowa deaccessioning fiasco primarily because, as we have noted before, this issue is one that creeps up with such frequency (almost one a week) that it would dictate it’s own blog (so we’re starting one. Look for it in the near future, sponsored by Merrill Lynch, Sotheby’s and Christie’s).

We confess: we are on Michael Asher’s side (one which looks to donor intent and wish and not art as a means to pay off Am-Ex bills). In today’s Wall Street Journal, Eric Gibson has poignant argument against the selling off of artwork (sorry, no link). He asks, “How can we turn back the tide of reckless capitalization of museum collections?” and answers quite beautifully by stating that if colleges go this route, then they’ll do so at the expense of funding and support from the NEA and the NEH (along with other grantors that follow their lead).

Making a solid argument for the consideration of deaccessioning, Donn Zaretsky argues against Richard Lacayo’s position that if college’s start treating their art collections like sellable assets, “no college collection is safe[.]” Zaretsky asks:

[H]ow do we know that? How do we know that it trumps all the other benefits a sale might bring without a close examination of what those benefits are? Imagine a case where a college has suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in flood damage that isn’t covered by insurance (nor is there any FEMA aid available) and, if it doesn’t figure out a way to come up with a hundred million dollars or two, it’s going to have to cut lots of academic and sports programs, fire a bunch of employees, eliminate several scholarship programs for needy students, etc. And imagine too that there happens to be an art museum directly across the street that is willing to pay $200 million for the work, and to promise never to charge admission to members of the college community, and, for good measure, to agree that the work can be hung back in its original location for three months out of every year. Now, of course, in many ways this is a completely unrealistic example, but do we really want to say that, in those circumstances, it would still be wrong for the college to go ahead with the sale, because to do so would increase, in some vague, unquantifiable way, the odds that some other school with some other valuable painting would look to sell it?

One other thing of considerable note: Felix Salmon of believes that if you’re a “backwater” midwestern-hick, not only are you not sophisticated enough to appreciate a Pollock, but you can always fly into New York and view it in “its rightful place in the art-historical pantheon.” After being on loan to NY’s MoMA (in the near future), Salmon utters that Pollock’s painting “will go back to the midwest, whence it came, out of sight and far off the beaten track.” The problem with this perverse argument is that it rests not only on class-centrist notions of culture, access, and appreciation, but more so on an artwork’s monetary value (not to mention a complete disavowal of a donor’s intent). It helps to know that Salmon’s claim comes from a financial journal, and from him, a thinker without an ounce of artistic training. (See his picture, picnic shirt and all, here, and read his bio here.)


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