In Dubuque, no 'Appraisal' worth losing Wood's works

Grant Wood's painting, "Appraisal," is one of two Wood paintings owned by Carnegie-Stout Public Library.

While the Carnegie-Stout Public Library's Board of Trustees has been clear it has no intention of selling either of its Grant Wood paintings, that hasn't stopped the offers from rolling in.

Trustees in November voted unanimously to reject a $6 million offer from the John Surovek Art Gallery in Palm Beach, Fla., on behalf of an anonymous client who wished to purchase the library-owned "Appraisal" by the famed Iowa artist.

"The Grant Wood is a source of pride not only to the Carnegie-Stout Library but to all of Dubuque," wrote library board President Jenny L. Weiss in an email. "As long as the library owns 'Appraisal,' the Board of Trustees feels an obligation to ensure it remains a Dubuque treasure."

The painting, along with Wood's "Victorian Survival," is on loan and hangs in the Dubuque Museum of Art.

Both pieces were bought in the early 1930s for a combined $1,150 using money from a bequest to the library for the purpose of purchasing art.

Weiss and Library Director Susan Henricks said the piece brings priceless value and recognition to Dubuque as a destination for art and culture. Dubuque's is the only museum in the nation to house two of Wood's more well-known works. It is a distinction that was specifically noted by Smithsonian Institution recently in announcing the art museum's addition as a Smithsonian Affiliations site.

The library and museum routinely receive offers for Wood's works. Henricks estimates she gets at least three calls per year with serious offers to purchase "Appraisal," though this was the largest offer she can recall.

"Six million is a lot of money," Henricks said, the equivalent to about two year's worth of library operating expenses. "But is it worth it to let a treasure like that go?"

Interest in the painting by Iowa's most famous artist has grown as of late, said Dubuque Museum of Art Executive Director David Schmitz. The facility has seen an uptick in requests from other museums to borrow the piece, including from some of the nation's larger, more prestigious art museums, he said.

The library board recently gave conditional approval to a request to exhibit the painting at Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Penn. It also received a similar request from High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Painted in 1931, a year after Wood rose from obscurity to national fame overnight with his iconic "American Gothic" scene, "Appraisal" represents one of Wood's more "mature works," Schmitz said.

Schmitz said the painting, depicting a farm woman selling a chicken to an affluent woman from the city, serves as a prime example of Wood as a regionalist painter, symbolizing farm life, Midwestern values and the contrast between urban and rural.

"I think this painting still speaks to us today," he said. "You think about Wood in 1930, Iowa was moving from an agricultural to an industrial state. ... Today, as we think of Iowa still being an urban and a rural state, and our country moving from rural to more urban, this painting speaks to some of the tensions and changes in our culture that arise out of that."

Schmitz anticipates the painting will only continue to increase in recognition and value, and he said he would not be surprised to see more purchase requests as it's exhibited more widely.

"There's an inflated art market with quite a bit of money out there, and Wood's works are scarce," he said. "We are lucky in Dubuque to have two of his major works."

Dr. Randy Lengeling, a local Grant Wood expert who donated a collection of Wood lithographs to the Dubuque Museum of Art, agreed.

He estimates the $6 million would have been a "bargain-basement" purchase price. The last work of Wood's of any significance to be sold was bought 10 years ago for nearly $7 million, and it was considered a "minor mature work," Lengeling said. .

"I'm elated they decided not to sell that painting," Lengeling said of "Appraisal." "We're considered a world-class collection because of these two Grant Wood paintings."

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