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Civic Skinny

June 14, 2012
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How U of Iowa subsidizes Pollock display; Doug True blabs; Knapp goes to GOP event

Jackson Pollock’s “Mural.” To some, it’s a bunch of hidden dollar signs.

The University of Iowa and the federal government are still arguing about who is going to finance a new art museum to replace the one that was badly damaged in the flood of 2008. It boils down to this: The insurers won’t insure art in a museum on a flood plain. The government thinks the old museum, which is on a flood plain, can be rebuilt and will pay for much of that but won’t pony up for a new one outside the flood zone.

Insurance is your problem, not ours, the feds are in effect saying.

The university is arguing with the feds. So far, the feds are winning. Last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency flatly rejected the university’s second appeal of the original rejection. Now, the university is considering suing FEMA, the university’s Doug True told the Cedar Rapids Gazette last week.

Suing FEMA with one hand while continuing to hold the other out for money on other projects — some of which also are in dispute — might not seem like the best strategy, and one University of Iowa source said that talk about suing was supposed to be secret and that True wasn’t expected to blab to the Gazette. It apparently was discussed by the Board of Regents in a closed session last week, though no one is confirming that.

[Trivia: Doug True, the longtime University of Iowa vice president for finance, is the son of Elmer P. True, as in E.P. True Parkway. E. P. True was the longtime West Des Moines city manager.]

All this means it will probably be another three or four years — at least — before a museum is built and the university’s 12,500 pieces of art are brought together again in a campus museum. Some 10,000 of those now are being stored at the Figge Museum in Davenport, where the university is paying $18,141.67 a month for exhibition space, storage, office space, overhead and administration, according to university figures given to Cityview in response to a Freedom of Information request.

Over four years, that works out to close to $1 million to store art, not counting insurance.

The collection is insured for around $500 million, which costs the university about $200,000 a year, no matter whether the art is on a wall in Iowa City or in a basement in Davenport. At the time of the flood, one piece, Jackson Pollock’s famous Mural, was valued at $140 million for insurance purposes by Sotheby’s, the New York auction house, and it currently is on display at the Des Moines Art Center, where it will stay until July 15. That, too, is costing the university.

The University of Iowa Museum of Art paid $19,179.32 for the removal of the painting from the exhibition space at the Figge in Davenport and installation of the painting in the Des Moines Art Center. The Des Moines Art Center is reimbursing the university 50 percent of this cost ($9,589.66). The university art museum paid $12,215 to someone to design and fabricate a travel frame and crate to transport the painting. The frame and crate can be reused, though at the moment there are no firm plans to take the delicate painting on the road after the Des Moines showing.

The Des Moines Art Center covered the expense of the actual transportation costs (movers, truck, etc.) for moving the painting from the Figge. The university paid $27,790.50 for transit insurance while the painting was being moved. There is no additional cost for insuring the painting in Des Moines, the university said. In all, the university is paying about $50,000 to facilitate the display in Des Moines, not counting the $50,000 or so a year the university pays to insure the painting, no matter where it is.

A couple of years ago, all hell broke loose in Iowa City and in the art community when it was gently suggested the university should explore selling the painting and using the proceeds for scholarships. The proceeds could supply free undergraduate tuition, annually and forever, to a Regent university for 1,000 needy Iowans. But university officials — who instead finance scholarships by skimming 20 percent off everyone’s tuition bills — and art lovers howled. Some legislators tried to pass a bill to force the sale, but some influential art lovers, who collect politicians as well as art, got that snuffed out. (One legislator received an impassioned letter urging him to vote against the legislation and expressing how important the painting is to the university. “Pollock” was misspelled throughout the letter. The letter was from a faculty member in the art department.)

In response to a request from the Board of Regents, the university issued a nine-page report on the painting and its importance. The mural “makes an important contribution to the Museum’s role as a teaching resource for students in the university,” the report said. Despite this importance to the education of Iowa students, and despite “the difficulty and inherent dangers of lending such a large and fragile object,” the painting was loaned to other museums seven times from 1962 to 1999, spending a total of 2.5 years in London, Berlin, Paris, New York and other art-tour stops.

And, of course, not many people ever ventured over to the University Museum to see the work when it was there. From 2003 to 2008, exactly 181,575 people visited the University of Iowa Museum of Art, school officials reported. That works out to 36,315 a year, or about half the number that attend a home football game at Kinnick Stadium on any given Saturday. Even if you assume that those 181,575 admissions all were different people — an absurd assumption — that means that about 2.8 million Iowans ignored it during that period. It’s a safe bet that thousands, probably tens of thousands, of graduates of the university never knew the painting was there.

At any rate, as Des Moines Art Center visitors ponder the Pollock, university officials continue to tilt against the FEMA windmill, state dollars continue to be spent to store art that no one is seeing, and — in truth — nothing is being done to get a new museum built in Iowa City.

One other thing: University officials now are estimating it will cost around $75 million to build a new museum, nearly twice what they were saying a year or so ago. ...

Did George Cataldo, regular contributor to Democratic candidates, really hold a fundraiser for Tom Latham the other evening? And was Bill Knapp really there?

Yes and yes. Cataldo is a pal of House Speaker John Boehner, who was the guest of honor at the fund-raiser for Republican House candidate Latham. And Knapp — who finds himself kind of liking long-time enemy Terry Branstad these days — was there because “I wanted to meet those guys.”

None of that is good news for Leonard Boswell. CV



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