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University’s art collection benefits Iowa

March 3, 2012
Messenger News

Since last year's highly controversial legislative battle over whether to force the University of Iowa to sell the most valuable painting in its art collection - Jackson Pollock's "Mural" - UI Museum of Art director Sean O'Harrow has faced a two-fold task:

One, he has been trying to reassure would-be donors that their donations will be valued and appreciated by the museum and won't be sold to the high bidder if economic times get rough.

"We built our collection through donations," O'Harrow told the Press-Citizen last year. "These are works that have been donated in good faith. So it's important to reinforce the idea that we are a trustworthy and reliable custodian of their benefactions."

Two, he has been trying to figure out how to demonstrate to lawmakers and skeptical Iowa taxpayers that the UI Museum of Art is itself an education outlet of the university - even with its flood-damaged permanent building now off limits and most of its collection being housed at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport.

Luckily O'Harrow, who directed the Figge before assuming the directorship of the university museum, has been in a good position to do just that.

Viewing the ongoing, productive working relationship between the Figge and the UI Museum of Art as an "a test case" for developing similar partnerships with art museums across the state, O'Harrow has been taking steps to take UI's prize artistic possession on tour throughout the state.

And museums across the state are looking forward to hosting the painting.

"The Des Moines Art Center would be extremely proud to have the opportunity to present Jackson Pollock's 'Mural,'" said the center's director, Jeff Fleming. "This quintessential icon of American visual culture would provide an unparalleled educational experience for the Des Moines community."

Before the painting can go on tour, however, O'Harrow needs to add yet another task to his agenda:

Three, he needs to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore the nearly 70-year-old "Mural" (which is valued at $150 million) to its former glory. A layer of varnish applied to the surface of the painting in the 1970s has aged and has affected its quality.

"Let's face it, when you own a national treasure, you don't actually own it," O'Harrow said last week. "It's yours to care for future generations. We feel it's our responsibility to care for it. ... All the people that have seen it haven't seen it in the best light. The strength of the painting is the palettes that Pollock used. Those colors have not been fully visible."

O'Harrow estimates the process will take several years and could cost $300,000 or more. Because the UI museum doesn't have that kind of money in its budget, much of the cost will have to be defrayed by the still unnamed partner agencies the museum has been working with.

And the restoration project is all the more ambitious considering that O'Harrow's largest and more challenging task still remains high on his to-do list:

Four, he needs to raise millions for the construction of a new building to house the university's art collection.

That task would be made considerably easier if FEMA would reconsider its decision to deny relocation expenses for the old museum that was flooded in 2008. But even if the FEMA funds eventually come through, O'Harrow will have enough on his plate to keep him busy for years to come.

- Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 21



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