'Mural' and Art in Academe

When he was growing up in Hawaii, Sean O'Harrow took art classes at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and he would wander the galleries before or after his classes. One afternoon he might gaze at a Van Gogh. Another day, he would "visit China" by walking through galleries devoted to Chinese art.

February 15, 2011

When he was growing up in Hawaii, Sean O'Harrow took art classes at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and he would wander the galleries before or after his classes. One afternoon he might gaze at a Van Gogh. Another day, he would "visit China" by walking through galleries devoted to Chinese art.

"I fell in love as a kid with a painting by Whistler, and I thought that was normal. I thought all museums had Van Gogh paintings. I thought looking at art was normal," said O'Harrow, the new director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art. O'Harrow is all too aware that not everyone thinks it is normal to feel passionate about art.

"I don't think art is considered normal, and this is why -- not to refer to certain recent events -- I think that's why people refer to art as not important, but as a luxury."

Those "certain recent events" are proposals to force the University of Iowa to sell Jackson Pollock's "Mural," an 8-by-20 foot painting that is considered one of the masterpieces of abstract art and of modern American art. It is a painting that could draw as much as $140 million for the cash-strapped University of Iowa. While a bill in the Iowa House of Representatives to force such a sale is far from passage, it can't be ignored either -- as its sponsor is the chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

At least one member of the Iowa Board of Regents agrees with the bill. Michael Gartner, who set off a discussion of the issue in 2008, issued a statement Friday saying that he "believes that providing scholarships to Iowa students is far more important than owning a painting that is not on the campus, has not been for two years, and is unlikely to be for at least another three years. All organizations regularly look at their assets and ask if that's the best use of money. In this case, the proceeds of as much as $150 million could be used for a far better purpose."

The reason the painting is off-campus (currently on display at the Figge Art Museum, in Davenport, Iowa) is that a devastating flood in 2008 left the art museum unable to house its collections. The prospect that one of the museum's best known works might never return has angered many in the art world. The Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Association of Museums issued a joint statement last week stating that a sale would "violate a fundamental ethical principle of the museum field, one which all accredited museums are bound to respect: that an accessioned work of art may not be treated as a disposable financial asset."

"Mural" has become this year's version of the 2009 debate over the art collection Brandeis University planned to sell before shelving the idea amid legal threats from donors and a pummeling by arts leaders. In these cases, and the debates over Fisk University's collections, modern art worth huge sums is seen by some as a financial bailout. The question at the crux of all of these debates: Is art central to the university mission?

O'Harrow isn't supposed to talk about the legislation to force a sale of his museum's most famous work, and he declined to offer any comment on the proposal. But in an interview, he discussed why the Pollock ended up at Iowa, its meaning and how he sees the painting fitting into a vision of art in the modern university.

The Road to Iowa City

The University of Iowa is of course well known for its Writers' Workshop, which has attracted generations of aspiring writers who work closely with faculty members and visiting novelists, poets and other authors. Less well known is that Iowa has a long tradition of bringing fine artists to campus to teach while producing their art - and it is that tradition that led to the Pollock painting ending up there.

Starting in 1908, Iowa started inviting working artists to teach art and art history at the university. This set Iowa on a different course from the way the fine arts were taught at many other colleges and universities. O'Harrow said that when he earned a degree in fine arts at Harvard University, it was in essence art history that he studied. "It wasn't about getting your hands dirty," like it has been, for decades, at Iowa.

The Iowa approach meant that "the faculty always understood the latest approaches to art because they were doing it," O'Harrow said. People were calling Iowa's art program "Greenwich Village West" by the 1940s, when Peggy Guggenheim started to take notice of it. Guggenheim, who had wealth from her famous family, was in the 1930s and 1940s a key collector of modern art, and she commissioned "Mural" for her New York City apartment. While she loved the work, she couldn't take it with her when she moved after World War II to Venice.

The work was briefly displayed at Yale University, and O'Harrow said that the rumors over the years were that Guggenheim considered giving the painting to that university, but "it was rejected there for being a little too much," and the university claimed not to have enough space. Guggenheim then turned to her artist friends at the University of Iowa. "Peggy viewed Iowa as such a progressive place," O'Harrow said. "She thought we would be great guardians." (Guggenheim wasn't the only person to feel that way, in particular with regard to modern art, and the Iowa collection features works by such luminaries as Beckmann, Matisse, Miró and Picasso, )

Guggenheim donated "Mural" in 1951, and, as a result, one of the key works of modern art has resided in Iowa City ever since.

"Looking at this piece is witnessing history," said O'Harrow. "Students witness an actual event in this piece, the move from figurative art to abstract art. This painting is when he started throwing paint at the canvas, which becomes so important later on. This is the first evidence of this approach."

Art and the Undergraduate

O'Harrow freely acknowledges that most undergraduates may never visit a university museum, and wouldn't necessarily know what to look for if they did. And to him, there is nothing contradictory about defending the presence of great works in a museum collection, and challenging the traditional model of a museum.

While parts of O'Harrow's background are what one might expect of a museum director (Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in art history, with a dissertation on "The Country House Architecture of Henry VII and his Courtiers"), other aspects are not. He worked in investment banking for several years and for a software business as well. He had taken the kinds of business courses that museum administrators are encouraged to seek out, but he wanted to get beyond the "theoretical" of the classroom and actually be in the business environment, to learn from it.

"I was not out to make money," he said. But O'Harrow said he realized the art world was "like the blind leading the blind. You are trained as an art historian and they don't teach you how to balance a budget."

Spending considerable time with people who don't take much art history left O'Harrow with a sense that museums themselves share in the blame for the indifference to art of much of the public. "Our art is seen as something so special that you have to make a special trip to see it, or it is seen as something you have to have a certain level of education to appreciate," O'Harrow said. "It shouldn't be like that. It should be part of the fabric of everyday life."

He cited the way Japan treats art, and the way Sweden values design as examples of how the masses can appreciate and support art. In those countries, the respect people feel for art and design is evident not just in support for museums, but also in the way people set up their homes and offices, he said. "Part of the problem is that museums are too stuck in their facilities," he said.

The Iowa art museum has had no choice, since the flood of 2008, but to display its art outside of its galleries -- while planning to renovate its facility. Art is on display at the student union, at the building housing development offices and at a museum in Davenport. But even while planning to rebuild the museum, O'Harrow wants some of the best art in the collection to remain elsewhere at the university. As Iowa undertakes major building efforts to repair flood damage to facilities other than the museum, O'Harrow is talking with architects and other planners about getting "some of the best works in front of the greatest number of people."

That means, he said, that a Miró might land in a classroom building that sees students rush through the halls constantly throughout the day. Obviously, he said, there are insurance issues and security issues, but there are ways "to use glass so it doesn't look like glass" and to house important pieces of art "that don't involve guards."

This mainstreaming of art is far preferable, he said, to having all the great work in a museum. "I think art, as a regular experience, has to be repetitive. I don't think looking at a piece once is sufficient," he said. Many college students in the United States don't remember a single work in their colleges' collections, but "everyone remembers that Henry Moore sculpture" near a key campus meeting-point. O'Harrow wants to give paintings that same place in the student memory and imagination.

While getting art out of the museum is important, he also said that directors and curators need to defend the idea that museums matter, that more people should learn about art (with some inspired by their everyday interactions), and that web images are not a substitute.

"You can't look at the Jackson Pollock online. It's 20 feet wide," O'Harrow said. "Scale is a big part of abstract expressionism."

Asserting the importance of art -- in everyday experience and museums -- is an obligation of educators, O'Harrow said. "I don't think you want to educate half the brain exclusively," he said, as those who seem interested only in science fields may be suggesting, he said.

While stressing that he "loves science as much as art," O'Harrow said that ignoring the role of art makes a higher education less than it should be. "It's a second-rate education that teaches only a limited amount" of what should be covered, he said. All fields need to be included, he said, "to produce an educated population."


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