Features: April 2010 – Spring: sunshine, green grass, flowers, warmth–and rain. This year all of us who weathered the floods of 2008 are watching the rainfall amounts and the thawing rivers north of us with a trepidation we never felt before those fateful days in June. The flood decimated the arts campus of the UI, forcing the closing of the Museum of Art. Moving art back into the building is not a wise decision for several reasons–insurance chief among them. The museum is now dispersed, with most of its collection in the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa. In this brief writing I will share some reflections about our whereabouts and our future.
The University of Iowa Museum of Art was deliberately and scenically placed on the banks of the Iowa River in the late 1960s. The picturesque setting contrasted with the brutal architecture of the Abramowitz building, providing a wonderful backdrop for the world-class art collection contained within. In the nearly 40 years the museum occupied its river home, it presented innovative and original exhibitions drawn from the whole gamut of the history of art–from prairies to fairies to Africa, Mexico and beyond!
The collections grew and multiplied while the sophistication of the museum staff increased as the need for their expertise grew. And, it was the staff’s professional acumen that made possible their assurance in tackling the almost impossible task of evacuating the collection. They removed nearly 80 percent of the collection in just three days before the National Guard locked the doors on June 13, and meticulously rescued the remaining objects after the building was reoccupied 10 days later. This achievement was due to the efforts of many–but most especially the devotion and commitment of all who were on staff at the UIMA. The damage and loss due to the flood was miniscule compared to the devastation of what could have occurred without their courageous actions.
It seems that in two years, their efforts are all but forgotten–life has moved on stranding them in longing for their museum. The collection was saved, relocated at first to Chicago art warehouses, and last April moved to the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, where it is now safely stored and on display for an expanded Iowa audience. A gallery and visual classroom were created on campus for student and faculty use, with regular public hours. All of these venues are free to UI students, faculty, staff and donors to the UIMA. Planning for a new building on University of Iowa soil, however, has not commenced.
During my tenure as interim director I have been impressed time and again by the tenacity, devotion, and creativity of the museum staff. They found the courage to move the collection from distant and less-than-ideal storage in Chicago to a generous neighboring Iowa museum despite criticism of some that felt threatened by presentation of our art anywhere but in Iowa City. They dug deep in their souls to find the energy and stamina to endlessly catalogue the collection during its various moves.
Our collection manager, Jeff Martin, and preparator, Steve Erickson, led this process brilliantly, traveling countless times to Chicago, Davenport, and still made time to create breathtaking displays of our art both at the Figge and in the IMU. Dale Fisher, director of education, invented new ways to educate the public about art. Instead of classes visiting the museum, he, ably assisted by our docents, took art to the schools. Our chief curator created the exhibition at the Figge in record time. In addition, she met with faculty in order to select works of art for our on-campus gallery to enhance course requirements in a fraction of space compared to our former museum. The museum’s efforts in fundraising for exhibitions and programs had to go on–UI support does not extend for these activities–and Buffie Tucker, membership and volunteer coordinator; Betty Breazeale, museum secretary; and Pat Hanick, UI Foundation representative, along with volunteers, student assistants and many more made our Museum pARTy! fundraisers successful despite the drastic change in our mode of operation.
In the midst of all of this activity, the museum successfully defended against the possible sale of its prized Pollock, Mural–the UI administration embraced these arguments and steadfastly refused to consider such a destructive action. The National Art Press heralded our achievement and has become a strong ally supporting us in our leadership role. Iowa is now cited as a success story in the face of mounting collection sales spreading across the nation as museums everywhere face economic hardships and challenges to their very survival.
During the past two years, the UIMA achieved many remarkable accomplishments. Last April, a selection of major paintings, including Mural, was presented in the Figge Art Museum to great acclaim. The Richey Ballroom, the site for the “UIMA@IMU,” opened in August due in large part to the collaborative vision of the IMU staff, transforming the Union into a cultural destination. The efforts of Risk Management, Facilities Management, and many others made this space come into being. The museum’s first 40 years were chronicled in an award-winning book featuring the stories of our early founders and donors.
In January, an educational and insightful temporary exhibition was presented at the Figge Art Museum. Drawn primarily from the museum’s permanent print collection, it features exquisite loans from dedicated museum patrons. The Figge exhibitions have increased attendance at that museum, making the UIMA collection visible to a much wider public than ever before. In March, the museum opened the first temporary exhibition in another new space in the IMU–the Black Box Theater. Faculty-curated, the exhibition will appeal to students as well as the general public interested in popular culture and hip hop in particular.
On April 19, a major retrospective exhibition devoted to the work of the counter culture artist Lil Picard, opens at the Grey Art Gallery of New York University curated by our chief curator , Kathleen Edwards. This project would have posed serious challenges without the disruption of the flood and the loss of our building, but is nothing short of a miraculous achievement given these circumstances. Future plans include a fall exhibition of an outstanding private collection of Yoruba twin figures in the Black Box space followed by the Iowa presentation of the Lil Picard exhibition in spring 2011.
From fall 2008 to the present, the UIMA continued to offer lectures, tours, programs and special events to its publics–without interruption. New sites were found for these events and museum patrons now enjoy the amenities of The University Athletic Club and IMU, where many museum programs are accommodated. The UIMA Magazine continues to be produced, offering an overview of all of the museum exhibitions and programs to a broad audience. The museum has extraordinary student employees who write our press releases, stories and design our publications. Other incredible student assistants research museum collections, and one graduate assistant curated the beautiful print exhibition, “In the Footsteps of Masters: The Evolution of the Reproductive Print” at the Figge Art Museum. Throughout the museum’s disruption, relocation and reinvention, museum donors and patrons remained steadfast–and without them none of the museum’s efforts to bring art to the public would be possible.
Yet, despite all of these astonishing efforts, no plans are forthcoming on when or where a new museum will be. UI President Sally Mason has publicly stated that there will be a new museum and is to be applauded for her commitment, but at the time of this writing, the university has not announced a timetable. An Envisioning Committee was convened to “imagine” what a new university museum could be–and produced a broad-brush report emphasizing the essential educational mission of the museum that must serve two publics–the campus as well as the broader community comprised of the state and beyond. Historically, the museum was the center piece of the visual art scene in Iowa City and the region. It supported the art activities of the various galleries as well as bringing artists and exhibitions to the attention of the community. It is important that the museum resume its physical status in order to provide the foundation for the arts in our area.
The UIMA is in need of a champion. A search is underway for a permanent director for the museum–and hopes are high that this individual will be able to successfully fund raise for the new building. In addition, he or she must possess the vision to create a truly world-class facility equal to the marvelous collection. But the new director won’t be able to act alone. The vigorous public debate and discussion over the location of Hancher and Voxman-Clapp evidences the passion our community has for the arts. While there are practical reasons why the UIMA was not included in this discussion, we are in need of tangible plans for a new museum now–even if its actualization is years away.
I am proud to have been the interim director during this difficult time. My nearly 19 years of experience at the UI, expertise as both an art historian and lawyer, as well as my academic teaching in the fields of art law and museum studies made possible my leading the transformation of the UIMA from a place-specific entity to its present emergency-imposed situation. The UIMA has accomplished much in the last two years. The support of volunteers and donors has been and will continue to be crucial to the museum’s success.
The museum staff will continue to create amazing exhibitions, dynamic programs and stimulating artistic experiences. But the museum needs to move forward and once again have a permanent building to display its extraordinary collection, present cutting-edge exhibitions, and assume the flagship stature necessary to truly support and foster the visual arts in Eastern Iowa. As my term comes to a close, I would like to encourage public support for the concrete planning necessary to make a new museum a reality.