Blue Poles: National Gallery of Australia director Gerard Vaughan labels call to sell Jackson Pollock masterpiece ‘ludicrous’


Blue Poles being removed from the National Gallery in Canberra


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The director of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has hit back at a suggestion the iconic Jackson Pollock painting Blue Poles should be sold off to pay down national debt.

Key points:

  • Blue Poles purchased in 1973 for $1.3 million with approval from Gough Whitlam
  • Victorian senator James Patterson has suggested it is now worth $350 million
  • NGA director says selling it would be ‘absurd’

Earlier this month, Victorian Liberal Senator James Paterson said while Blue Poles had proved a very good investment, it was inappropriate for the Federal Government to retain one of the world’s most expensive artworks.

Speaking for the first time on the furore, NGA director Dr Gerard Vaughan said he had refused to comment publicly before because the suggestion was “such a ludicrous concept” and “manifestly absurd”.

“Blue Poles is one of the greatest pictures in the world,” he told Margaret Throsby’s Midday Interview.

“It’s a fantastic thing that the National Gallery of Australia, the people of Australia, own one of the greatest pictures in the world and certainly perhaps the greatest American picture of the 20th century.”

The controversial artwork was bought in 1973 with the approval of then-prime minister Gough Whitlam for a record $1.3 million.

Portrait of Dr Gerard Vaughan.

The purchase, which divided public opinion, draws a significant number of visitors to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra each year.

The painting is on loan to the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where it is showing in the current exhibition, Abstract Expressionism.

Dr Vaughan said Blue Poles was one of the centrepieces of the exhibition — used on the catalogue cover and on posters around London and in advertising.

“It’s the most astonishing show of American abstract expressionism, just masterpiece after masterpiece. But Blue Poles stands supreme,” he said.

“I was there on the day of the press view … and at every moment of the day there was a crowd of people around it because they had never seen it before. I think it is something we should be very proud of.”

Blue Poles ‘a national treasure’: Mathias Cormann

Senator Paterson suggested the art work was estimated at $350 million for insurance purposes.

“But my view is that it’s not appropriate for the Federal Government to own a single piece of art worth $350 million, it would be one of the most expensive paintings in the world,” he said in October.

“It’ll only be worth something to taxpayers when we sell it.”

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said at the time he was pleased Senator Paterson was looking for ways to improve the budget bottom line but that it was a matter for the board of the National Gallery.

“It is a national treasure, and I can’t see it being sold,” Senator Cormann said.

Dr Vaughan has previously refused to comment on speculation among art experts the painting was now worth at least several hundred million dollars.

He told the ABC last month it would be some time before the painting travelled overseas again due to the logistical challenges of shipping such a large canvas.

“I think I can say it with absolute certainty there’s no way Blue Poles will ever be for sale.”

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