A Museum Sells a Prized Pollock to Acquire Art by Underrepresented Artists

Jackson Pollock, “Red Composition” (1946) (courtesy Christie’s)

Following a unanimous vote by the museum’s Board of Trustees, the Everson Museum of Art in downtown Syracuse, New York, is deaccessioning one of its highlight works, Jackson Pollock’s “Red Composition” (1946). Its sale will fund acquisitions of work by artists of color, women artists, and other marginalized artists underrepresented in the museum’s collection. The early Pollock painting will be included in Christie’s New York Evening Sale of 20th and 21st Century Art on October 6 and is estimated to sell for between $12 and 18 million.

Made in a significant year for Pollock, “Red Composition” is among the first works to feature the artist’s hallmark drip technique. Pollock and his wife, the artist Lee Krasner, had just moved to East Hampton, where a private studio converted from a barn gave him space to experiment with the technique. “Red Composition” is chronologically sandwiched between Pollock’s “Sound of Grass” series, examples of which are in the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, and “Free Form” (1946), also at MoMA. The painting’s provenance adds to its allure for potential buyers. The work was originally owned by Pollock’s friend and patron Peggy Guggenheim, one of the most important modern art collectors of her time. Guggenheim gave the painting to the son of Surrealist artist Max Ernst in 1947. Syracuse-born philanthropists Dorothy and Marshall M. Reisman purchased the work in the early 1950s and donated it to the Everson Museum in 1991.

The Everson Museum, an institution primarily known for its ceramics collection, has been working to diversify its holdings since 2017, when it established a Collecting Priorities Plan. In June 2020, the museum launched an Equity Task Force dedicated to promoting racial and economic justice throughout the institution, making the acquisition of works by marginalized groups one of its top priorities. In a statement, museum director Elizabeth Dunbar said:

The murder of George Floyd and a string of senseless killings of Black lives have propelled us into urgent discussions surrounding the Museum’s role and responsibility in fighting racism inside and outside our walls. Now is the time for action. By deaccessioning a single artwork, we can make enormous strides in building a collection that reflects the amazing diversity of our community and ensure that it remains accessible to all for generations to come.

In addition to diversifying the museum’s collection, funds from the sale will also be used to maintain some of the 10,000 objects already in the collection.

The Everson Museum is one of several institutions that have recently deaccessioned modern masterpieces to purchase work by marginalized artists. In 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Art sold seven artworks by names like Andy Warhol and Franz Kline to acquire more contemporary pieces by artists of color and women artists; in 2019, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art sold a painting by Mark Rothko to the same end. The Everson Museum’s new acquisitions will begin in 2021.