The Museum of Modern Art (MAM) in Rio de Janeiro announced on Sunday that it is selling the only Jackson Pollock painting currently on public view in Brazil. The museum expects the work, “Nº 16” (1950), to sell for around $25 million, which would help the museum sustain itself for at least 30 years. This will be the first time a museum in Brazil has deaccessioned an artwork to pay off debt.
MAM currently has a deficit of 1.5 million reais (roughly $454,170), and because it’s a private institution, it does not receive any governmental assistance. According to the museum’s communications department, maintenance costs $1.8 million a year, more than the museum’s 2017 revenue of $1.2 million.
“We hope the buyer will be Brazilian, and that they will keep the work at MAM or at another museum in the country,” said MAM President Carlos Alberto Chateaubriand of the Pollock, which was donated to the museum by Nelson Rockefeller in 1954. However, given the high price of the painting, collectors are skeptical that a Brazilian buyer or museum will acquire it. If no Brazilian museums are interested, then MAM will approach auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips.
MAM says it chose to sell the painting because, for one thing, Pollock “is not a Brazilian artist.” The press release explains that the museum, which has a total of 16,000 artworks, is primarily dedicated to modern and contemporary Brazilian art, and that its foreign art collection is more robust in sculpture rather than painting. Another significant factor, of course, is that the Pollock is guaranteed to sell well.
The museum explains that this kind of procedure is “common in North American and European museums.” Indeed, this last year has seen the ongoing saga of the Berkshire Museum, which is trying to auction off 40 of its artworks, including a work by Norman Rockwell, for which the museum has faced public backlash. In January, La Salle University in Philadelphia deaccessioned 46 pieces from its art museum collection, including works by Ingres, Tintoretto, and Matisse. This May, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa is auctioning off a Chagall painting through Christie’s. The list goes on.
The decision has sparked mixed reactions in Brazil. The Ministry of Culture supports the museum, stating that it “recognizes and valorizes the autonomy of MAM, a private institution that offers relevant services to Brazilian culture. For this reason, it respects and supports the directorship’s decision.”
However, the Institute of Brazilian Museums (Ibram), a branch of the Ministry of Culture that administers more than 30 museums in the country, has urged MAM not to move forward with the decision. In a statement published on Monday, Ibram said it was “surprised” by the news, and offered to help the museum brainstorm alternative solutions.
When the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo asked MAM President Chateaubriand about Ibram’s offer, he said he “would not discuss this matter with the press.” He questioned whether alternative solutions would work, and added, “How are we going to pay the bills?”
Marta Mestre, who worked for five years as a curatorial assistant at MAM, publicly opposed the decision in a Facebook post: “A decision like this should be put under public scrutiny, in a wider forum, and not be presented as a done deal, coming from above.”