cover story

Sell Off

MOCA and Jacksonville to auction multi-million dollar Joan Mitchell painting

Posted

On March 21, the Mayor's Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa filed a white paper outlining his plan to sell a city-owned painting at auction. It wasn't just any painting, however, and it wasn't just any auction.

The work, titled Iva, is a gigantic oil-on-canvas triptych, painted by American abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell in 1973. Its estimated value is between $3 and $5 million.

The auction is Christie's May sale, a smorgasbord of exclusive fine art from the 20th century—including the legendary Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller. The once-in-a-lifetime New York event is anticipated to be the biggest art auction in U.S. history.

Mousa's proposal was a big deal and it would require some legislative maneuvering. Iva had to be formally returned to the city of Jacksonville from the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (MOCAJax), where it has been housed since 2006. It would then be declared "surplus to the City's needs" and authorized for auction at Christie's. The transaction would be exempt from the usual competitive solicitation provisions governing the disposition of public property because, ironically, Christie's doesn't bid for government surplus. Finally, to meet the British auction house's April 9 marketing deadline, Mousa advised emergency passage of all necessary legislation.

This partnership with a private—and ultimately unaccountable—international middleman is unusual but there has been no outcry, perhaps because of the high stakes involved or perhaps because of the clear benefit to a local arts community in need. Still, it may prove a harmful precedent in the coming years.

In any case, some of what was enacted in the resulting Ordinance 2018-193-E had been foreseen when the city gave the painting to MOCAJax in 2006. Iva had been city property since 1997, when it was donated by Prudential Insurance to celebrate the opening of the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts. MOCAJax received the work on the condition that it would be exhibited publicly. (The museum currently possesses and is displaying another Mitchell, Chord III, a 77-inch by 44-inch painting from 1986.)

The only problem with that condition was the size of the piece. At roughly 10 feet tall and nearly 20 feet wide, Iva could be mounted only in the museum's atrium, and that space was already slated to be occupied by MOCA's Project Atrium program for emerging artists. Iva was packed up in 2007. It hasn't been seen in public since. In some ways, then, last month's hand-back was long overdue.

The proceeds from the auction are to be divvied up between MOCAJax and the city. The legislation stipulates: "Fifty percent (50%) of the auction sales proceeds shall be used to make a one-time gift to MOCAJax for the establishment of an endowment fund to be deposited into the UNF Foundation for MOCAJax to acquire, manage and maintain MOCAJax's art collection; and fifty percent (50%) of the auction sales proceeds shall be deposited in a separate activity under the Art in Public Places Trust Fund, of which only the annual interest earnings shall be used to maintain the City's public art."

"In adherence to best practices adopted by museums throughout the world, funds collected from the sale of artwork must be reinvested into the collection," said city public information officer Tia R. Ford. "Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa, following discussions with Mayor [Lenny] Curry, recommended this reinvestment opportunity to help bolster and strengthen our City's art and culture services and offerings. As cuts to arts and culture make headlines at state and federal levels, the City of Jacksonville has a unique opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to investing in and sustaining art and cultural assets through the sale of this work. It also highlights Jacksonville internationally as a city that is actively serving its community through art and culture."

The sale came as something as a surprise to the Cultural Council.

"To be honest," said Executive Director Tony Allegretti, "Iva wasn't even a blip on our radar until this year and that's only because of the city's decision to sell it."

The Cultural Council may not have seen it coming, but the agency is nevertheless appreciative of the golden opportunity.

"We're a beneficiary should it sell but we weren't part of the process," Allegretti said. "We could really use the funds. We have a large collection that needs maintenance and there's not a lot of capacity in our current account. To make things worse, just this past year we've been nailed with some maintenance and conservation emergencies, including Hurricane Irma."

A recent conservation and maintenance appraisal identified 24 works as Priority No. 1 or No. 2, needing attention either urgently or in the near future. The estimated combined cost of that attention is more than $400,000. The current available funds are around $100,000.

In a move to address the shortfall, Allegretti worked with the Mayor's Office last year to allocate a greater percentage of capital investment to maintenance. His partner at City Hall was none other than Sam Mousa.

Allegretti speculates that last year's request for more maintenance possibly played a part in Mousa's decision to sell Iva this year. Whatever its impetus, the sale will be a windfall for Allegretti's organization. The available maintenance funds are limited to the annual interest on the Cultural Council's half of the final auction selling price, but it will be a gift that keeps on giving.

"We're happy to receive a continual revenue stream to help us take care of the city's permanent collection going forward," said Allegretti.

The auction's other beneficiary played a more direct role in the decision to sell Iva. MOCAJax, a cultural institute of the University of North Florida, has been the painting's home for more than a decade. Its half of the auction revenue will go directly into an endowment for the acquisition, management and maintenance of the museum's collection.

The museum's current director, Caitlín Doherty, had been serving for a year and a day when Sam Mousa filed the white paper that turned Iva from artwork to asset. According to her, the decision was mutual.

"It was an ongoing conversation between the city and the museum," Doherty said. "And this kind of conversation doesn't happen in isolation. Priorities change all the time. The climate was never quite right to bring this to the fore in the past. We needed the opportunity to be right."

It was Doherty and her team at MOCAJax who advised Mousa that Christie's May sale would give Iva maximum exposure—and maximum return.

"Everyone has their role in this process," the director said. "We were able to contribute knowledge about the importance of this event. This year we have Christie's selling the Rockefeller Collection, specifically for philanthropic causes. The eyes of the collecting world are on New York. Not only is Iva being sold in its natural habitat, it's also being sold during a marquee sale week."

"Joan Mitchell's works are at a high point in terms of value and collectors," she added. "It's the perfect storm."

For its part, Christie's has fully embraced Iva. The painting is the headliner of the May 18 Post-War & Contemporary Art Morning Session and it graces signage, brochures and catalog covers. The esteemed auction house has also made the deal financially interesting for the seller.

"The sale of Iva will cost the city of Jacksonville nothing," Doherty said. "Christie's has waived all associated costs of transporting, conserving, storing, promoting and selling the work. They have waived the seller's premium and have agreed instead on an enhanced hammer sale of 104 percent. No commission will be charged to the city as a seller and Jacksonville will further receive 104 percent of the hammer price."

This arrangement indicates the prestige attached to both the piece and its painter. Inspired by and named after her beloved German shepherd, painted just as artist and muse were settling into their new French home Vétheuil in 1973, Iva is an example of Joan Mitchell at her most confident.

*********

Joan Mitchell was never a starving artist. Her landmark New York debut in the early 1950s was followed by a steady rise in press and profits, both at home and in Paris. By the 1970s, Mitchell was a member of the transatlantic art establishment. Vétheuil, where Iva was painted, was no artist's humble garret. It was a French country villa sprawled out on the banks of the Seine River.

The painting's three panels present that pastoral life in different phases of abstraction, from soft-focus expressionism to full-on bold and chunky. But it's just as much a labor of love, shot through with emotion for her companion, as it is an experiment in form.

Mitchell ultimately sold Iva in 1986. The artist herself wasn't in particularly good health by then. She endured two hip replacement procedures and treatment for cancer before rallying her strength and producing one final series of critically acclaimed paintings. She died in 1992.

Since then, her works (and legacy) have only gathered steam among collectors and critics alike. A Mitchell on the scale of Iva is a coup for Christie's, hence the incentives thrown Jacksonville's way. The auction house is promoting the painting with a full-court press. The accompanying literature is lurid, even by salesman standards.

"A lush, operatic painting of monumental proportions," the lot essay begins, "Joan Mitchell's Iva is a painterly tour-de-force, capturing the fleeting effects of nature in all its temperamental glory."

There follow references to "brooding passages of atmospheric reds, maroons, mauves and warm earth tones" as well as "floating fields of soft lavender and delicate cornflower blue" and "fine rivulets of thinned-down pigment trickling down the canvas, like falling rain on weathered stone."

Christie's May sale, which kicked off on May 8, has already made headlines around the world. On Day One, international bidders lined up and held their paddles aloft in an effort to take home a piece of the Rockefeller legacy. They spent a record-breaking $646,498,750.

The sale of Iva is anticipated to add as much as $5 million into the city's coffers. It takes place in the wake of a recent controversy over the proposed sale and privatization of Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA). The mayor has since ruled out that project, but it's clear the administration is exploring its revenue options.

Tia Ford says the sale of Iva has been discussed and decided in keeping with all due norms of city government.

"The city has maintained transparency and accountability throughout this business transaction process," she said. "In the past few weeks, the MOCA board, representatives of UNF, Cultural Council members, City Council and other stakeholders have all been briefed and offered public input. This very transparent process offers great accountability and value to the people of Jacksonville."

MOCAJax's Doherty concurs.

"There's no elephant in the room," the museum director asserted. "We've been full, frank and open. This is a good news story, a great news story for the city of Jacksonville, for the artistic community, for the arts as driver of development Downtown and for the long-term stability of our collection."

There is no reason to believe city or museum officials have acted in anything other than good faith. The proceeds from the auction will indeed benefit the arts in Jacksonville and everything about the process has largely gone according to established norms.

The only exceptions are the city's strict bidding procedures, which have been waived by request to allow Christie's to act as proxy. This may turn out to be a significant exception because, as far as the citizens of Jacksonville are concerned, the British auction house is a black box. The art market attracts buyers from around the world. They are driven by different motivations, not always the transcendental beauty of oil on canvas. And many of these buyers remain anonymous—even to Christie's.

So, yes, the money will benefit the local arts community, but we may never know where it came from.

When asked if the opacity of the art auction might constitute an end-run—intentional or not—around government oversight, Doherty declined comment and deferred to Sam Mousa and city officials. Ford, who answered our questions in lieu of Mousa, deferred in her turn to the prestige and efficacy of the art market.

"International museum experts advise that this is absolutely the most appropriate forum for the sale of an internationally significant artwork like Iva," she explained. "The market for Post-War and Contemporary Art has never been stronger and Christie's is a market leader. For Joan Mitchell artwork, specifically, Christie's holds five of the six highest auction prices for the artist, and has the ability to promote the sale with the power of their global reputation and resources, and therefore reach collectors around the world. The city has also placed a reserve price on the art, thereby guaranteeing a minimum sale price."

As the auctioneer's hammer falls on the morning of May 18, Jacksonville will be watching. Most of the auction's early sales have outperformed expectations, so it's unlikely that the modest reserve price of $2.7 million for Iva won't be met. The real question is, how high will the bidding climb? And where will the painting go from here?

This second question may never be answered. Private collectors are often just that: private. And, with an asking price well beyond the acquisition budget of most public institutions, it's unlikely the painting will hang in a museum again.

"Wherever it goes," Doherty assured, " Iva will be a loved artwork."

________

Update: On May 18, Iva sold for $3,252,500.

No comments on this story | Add your comment
Please log in or register to add your comment