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Syracuse Art Museum Takes ‘Big Risk’, Selling $18 million Jackson Pollock Painting

SYRACUSE, NY (WRVO) - The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse is selling a Jackson Pollock painting at auction that could be worth up to $18 million dollars. The museum is making the sale to buy more work from artists of color, women and other marginalized groups. But not everyone thinks it’s a good idea, and it could be part of an ongoing trend in the art world.ListenListening...2:24

For the past few years, the Everson has been acquiring work by new artists. But Elizabeth Dunbar, director and CEO of the museum, said the killing of George Floyd by police earlier this year, made museum officials feel a responsibility to do more.

Jackson Pollock’s “Red Composition” (1946).

“The Everson is not neutral,” Dunbar said. “We want to stand on the right side of history and we want to make positive change for our community.”

The museum began investigating, internally, how it could combat racism and social injustice. Dunbar said it was the perfect time for them to deaccession, or remove from their collection, what could be the museum’s most valuable work: Jackson Pollock’s “Red Composition.” Painted in 1946, it’s a piece described by the  Christie’s Auction House as, “an important early work by the celebrated American artist whose drip painting technique would come to revolutionize 20th Century art.”

But since the painting was donated to the museum in 1991, Dunbar said it’s only been in three exhibitions.

“We think the real value of the Pollock is what it can do for the legacy of the museum, and not just one single artwork, which is rarely seen at the museum,” Dunbar said.

While Dunbar said the overwhelming response she’s gotten has been positive, there are some panning the sale. One prominent  Los Angeles Times art critic called it “inexcusable” saying “the Everson is betraying its legacy” as the first museum dedicated to collecting only American art.

Andrew Saluti is an assistant professor of museum studies at Syracuse University. He said in recent years, major museums have been making their collections more representative of their communities by selling famous works. He cited a  study by the Public Library of Science that says 85% of artists in U.S. museums are white, and 87% are male.

“This is not going to be the last museum to do this,” Saluti said. “Alternatively, I hope that it’s not going to be routine. I hope that this is not what museums are going to have to do to shift their collecting strategy.”

While he agrees with the move, he said the Everson is taking a big risk. When the Pollock painting goes up for auction at Christie’s on Oct. 6, it could be could be bought by a private collector and never seen again.