August is a tough time for art bloggers. Just look at Tyler Green’s bully campaign against the University of Iowa Regent, Michael Gartner. The sheer volume of posts is too great for us to link to all of them. But among the one-sided interviews (“Are you unconditionally opposed . . . ?”) and links to supportive editorials, there’s an interesting philosophical issue. Felix Salmon tries to get at one side of it here as he tries to suggest that perhaps the interests of the painting and the stature of the artist might be better served if it were in a world-class institution. (Ideas for solving the impasse after the jump.)
It would be a shame for Iowa to lose a painting donated to it by Peggy Guggenheim (the work was created for her entry hall.) It would also be a shame for the University–damaged by severe floods–to act in such a financially irresponsible way as not to know the value of an asset. It’s interesting that Green has mounted the campaign without once mentioning the controversy over Thomas Eakins’s Gross Clinic at The Thomas Jefferson Medical School. The circumstances are not the same but the two-year Eakins saga does set a kind of precedent.
Think of it this way, Mural once greeted guests to a wealthy woman’s home. Then it gave students in a college cafeteria something to ponder while wolfing through the creamed, chipped beef on toast. Now it sits in front of a pair of Eames chairs flanked by a Joan Mitchell and Adolph Gottlieb on one side and sculpture on the other creating the atmosphere of a collector’s living room.
Iowa’s possession of the picture is a point of cultural pride–as was Philadelphia’s jealous possession of its Eakins–just as a private owner is proud to invite guests into her home to see her Pollock. Salmon may be right that a bigger institution with a broader collection could do more for the Pollock by making it part of their story. But so could Steven Cohen. And when Cohen’s collection is done–if it is ever done–it might do more for the Pollock than any institution open to the public.
To take the opposite tack, when Mural sat in the University of Iowa cafeteria, it was in no less obscure a place than da Vinci’s Last Supper. Granted, the da Vinci mural had a few hundred more years to work its way into art history.
So the nub of the issue is whether Mural is an asset for the University’s use or a public trust. Because the University is a public school, this more of a question than when a private institution makes an inventory of its assets. If it is a public trust, Salmon raises the question, to what purpose was the work entrusted to the University of Iowa? The greater glory of the intsitution for owning an important work of art that its students and citizens can enjoy or to promote the work to its utmost importance as an object of art history?
Something has happened in the art world in recent years that might offer a solution. Eli Broad’s recent decision not to donate his art to any one museum is part of it; the other part is the growing acceptance of trading art as a legitimate way for the works to find their greatest value (in both senses of the word.)
Collectors used to buy with hopes of building a monument to their taste, perception and public-spirit. Today, buyers are interested in making connections, seeing patterns and pursuing ideas. A collection is never done–and no one picture is indispensable. As a work moves around to different collections, its importance grows by the number connections it can make. It doesn’t matter who owns Jasper Johns’s False Start. Whether it is Robert and Edith Scull, Francois de Menil, S.I. Newhouse, David Geffen or Kenneth Griffin, what matters is that False Start continues to show its power and relevance as a work of art.
So maybe Tyler Green should be encouraging the University and its museum to come up with novel ways to make the most of this asset, both financially and culturally. One of their proposals was a sale to another institution with rights to display the work. The art may end up being better served by this approach, or another one; civic pride might be enhanced by it too. They’ll never know until they explore the idea.