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Facing Financial Struggles, Brazilian Museum to Sell Jackson Pollock Painting

In an effort to become self-sustaining, the Modern Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro announced that it plans to sell a Jackson Pollock painting estimated to be worth around $25 million. The strategy has already proven to be controversial. While the Brazilian Institute of Museums has tried to convince MAM to change its mind, the Brazilian ministry of culture supports the idea, which could allow the institution, a private nonprofit, to depend less on economic factors. Rio de Janeiro spent almost $12 billion to host the Olympic Games in 2016—a time when Brazil was facing a recession—and in the aftermath, the country’s financial turmoil has only deepened.

The painting, a smaller format work titled No. 16, 1950, was donated by former vice president Nelson Rockefeller in 1954 shortly after the museum's founding in 1948. Out of more than sixteen thousand works, the museum chose to auction this particular painting partly because Pollock is not a Brazilian artist and discarding this work alone could provide substantial resources for the museum, which receives no federal funding and relies primarily on donations encouraged by the Rouanet Law, a Brazilian tax incentive for cultural investments that MAM claims is failing to supply enough money. The annual cost of the institution is around $1.8 million, and its deficit is nearly half a million dollars, according to Estadão. 

The museum claims the decision will mark the first instance of a Brazilian museum deaccessioning an artwork, a practice common in Europe and the United States. If MAM fails to sell the painting to a Brazilian museum, they plan to take it to international auction houses like Sotheby’s, Christie’s, or Phillips. The initiative, approved across the museum’s board, is intended to fund MAM’s maintenance and development for three decades.

“With this fund, MAM will be able to make short-, medium-, and long-term planning; infrastructure improvements; increase personnel; and update the Brazilian art collection, filling the gaps and acquiring works by contemporary artists,” MAM president Carlos Alberto Chateaubriand told Estadão.

Marta Mestre, a former assistant curator at the museum, expressed disapproval on social media. “Such a decision should be put to public scrutiny in a wider forum, not presented as finished, coming from above,” she wrote. She also stressed that the political context of the painting's donation and its history at the museum make it a key work in the collection. “It is a document that tells a fundamental story for modern art and Brazil.”