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Sell university artwork, never. For $140 million. Well . . . let’s think about that.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956), the pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, challenged the artistic tradition of using an easel and brush by pouring and dripping paint onto canvases. His groundbreaking works had a childlike quality which belied their stunning complexity and sophistication. Driven by inner torment which compelled him to paint, Pollock attached large canvases to the floor, densely pouring, dripping and flinging paint embedded with sand or glass onto them with intense physical movement. Influenced by Picasso, Miró, and the Surrealists, Pollock also revolutionized a style of painting in which the work has no identifiable parts or point of emphasis, and is painted with a stream-of-consciousness technique called psychic automatism.

As reported by Inside Higher Education, “The chair of the Iowa House Appropriations Committee has introduced a bill to force the University of Iowa to sell Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” and to use the $140 million that the painting is worth to set up a trust for scholarships, The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported.

The bill states that the terms of the sale would have to allow “Mural” to be back on campus for three months every four years, so students could continue to learn from it.

In the past, when the idea of selling the famous painting has come up, university officials have noted that art museum ethics bar such sales, and that auctioning off the painting could endanger the reputation of the university and its art museum, while depriving students and faculty of an important work of modern art.”

I was surprised when I read the report, but it got me thinking.  Let’s play a little Devil’s Advocate.  Why would the Iowa Legislature even consider something like this.

The $140 million scholarship endowment would generate $4.2 million annually if the fund returned 3 percent.  It could generate $7 million annually if it generated a return of 5 percent.  Think of how many students could benefit from that kind of investment in scholarships.

In-state, undergraduate fees and tuition at Iowa are about $7500 for liberal arts & science majors.  So at the lower end of returns, the sale could fund 100 percent of the tuition and fees for 560 students.  About 933 students at the higher end of the scale.

In-state graduate tuition and fees are about $9200 per year or about 450 students at the low end, 760 at the high.

It gets interesting doesn’t it.  Then look at the cuts the university system has taken during the last two years as state budgets tumble, $140 million.

It’s sad that funding in higher education has come to this, but it’s hard to blame the Iowa legislature for looking at different ways to fund the enterprise when everyone expects that we’re experiencing a “new normal” when it comes to the funding of higher education.

Personally, I don’t think you can even consider selling the Pollock.  The impact it would have on the original donors, the potential impact on possible donors.  The hit the state would take for seeking short-term solutions for long-term problems.  The impact on education.  It’s one thing to study an original Jackson Pollock.  Entirely another to study a cheap copy.  An ill-advised move. Way too risky.

But $140 million. Think about it.

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