After 14 years, the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art is back and almost ready for its Aug. 26 opening. As someone who has only lived in Iowa City without this museum, and as an art historian by training, I can’t wait.
I actually enjoyed the traffic noise as I approached the Stanley from Burlington Street, because I was entering an art museum in Iowa City — I don’t have to leave town anymore. As Director Lauren Lessing noted during the tour, there are generations of UI students who have never entered into a campus art museum. Thousands of students and many Eastern Iowa residents have never had that option.
This new building, designed by BNIM Iowa, is downtown-adjacent, located next to Gibson Square Park and the UI Main Library. The walk downhill to the park, up the ramp and into the museum felt seamless. There is paid parking below the museum, with a pay station (to be installed) and integration with the Passport Parking app, so those who have trouble walking and need an easy, accessible entrance have it available.
Ramp, Plaza, Lobby, Commissioned Public Art
The main entryway faces east. The plaza overlooks the park, and floor-to-ceiling windows look into the lobby. Both can function as performance spaces, which will allow the museum to welcome multiple forms of art onto the property. The lobby consists of an information desk and a seating area. I did not notice a café or gift shop, but Elizabeth Wallace, Manager of Communications and Marketing, noted that there will be a coffee cart. In other practical information: there will be no admission fee or dress code.
“It is our goal and passion to make everyone feel welcome at the museum,” Wallace says, “for people to come as they are and experience it as they please.”
It can be difficult for people to want to be in art museums given their historically elitist origins. However, continual and repeated visits make museum-going an ordinary occurrence that becomes extraordinary through close observation and contemplation of objects.
The lobby also contains a new work of art: an in-progress mural by Nigerian-born, Midwest-raised abstract painter Odili Donald Odita. “Surrounding” is the first piece in “Thresholds,” a series of commissioned work from artists who have a connection to Iowa. Odita’s parents attended the University of Iowa, and he lived here as a toddler. His assistants painted while Odita sat down to answer questions during the walkthrough.
The mural consists of large, triangular shards of pinks, oranges, blues and greens. The artist describes the work as a “spatial event,” wherein the colors change as they recede and project, with changing light levels and seasons, and with the movement of one’s body as it moves across the work. This physicality is one of the ways that “Surrounding” is in conversation with Jackson Pollock’s “Mural,” the museum’s most famous piece.
Odita finds humanity in the piece, contemplating Pollock’s movements across the canvas as he applied paint. Movement is also found in the ways that the mind walks and wonders through the act of painting. Both Odita and Lessing consider the lobby a “gateway” (both used the term in separate instances): the glass gets you to look inside, the mural invites you in, and hopefully you’ll go upstairs to experience the collection. Twice during the tour, Lessing stated that because the collection belongs to the State of Iowa, it therefore belongs to its citizens. Therefore, you need to go upstairs.
Second Floor — Exhibition Space
The second floor is the primary exhibition space, with 17,000 square feet to roam. There are two main gallery spaces to the right and left of the elevators, and along the lightwell is a row of visible storage, which will house portions of the ceramics collection, to be changed out periodically. All interior walls are moveable, allowing for flexible space that can accommodate whatever is needed. Fun fact: The 12-foot ceilings can accommodate all works in the collection except for a plank mask from Burkina Faso. It will have to be displayed horizontally.
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“Homecoming” is the name of the inaugural show featuring highlights from the permanent collection. The DeWolf Family Gallery will house “Mural,” and it won’t be located exactly where you might think. Since the painting was a game-changing work for Pollock, the path taken to find it in the galleries is a metaphor: Lessing and staff “want to teach the moment of epiphany” that Pollock had in creating the painting, so you’ll have to adventure a little to discover it.
Third Floor — Classrooms
The third floor is home to classrooms, storage space and two terraces. This education area allows for more personal interactions with objects. The “visual classroom” has walls that pull out and function as easels to display objects pulled from storage. This space is intended for shorter, one-time visits by classes and community members who would like to look at work. NOTE: the community can request artwork to view, study and research too. If you are curious about something in the collection, then request it.
The “visual laboratory” has visible storage around the walls, and is meant for longer display of items, for pieces to be investigated more extensively through repeated viewings. Repeated viewings give a fuller understanding of an object and allow you to create a more personal relationship with it. This is the magic that happens in an art museum: to have this experience, you have to keep coming back, to look and look again. Art museums get better over time the more you come in.
Other Forms of Accessibility
In the conversation in the visual laboratory, I asked about the museum’s accessibility in general. The building is ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant, but that’s a bare minimum for the museum. There is a hearing loop in the lobby, that allows visitors with hearing aids to tap into the sound system to cut out distracting noise. The institution also hired disability consultants to maximize the experience for those who have different mobility needs and use assistive technology.
For example, guests with low vision can use a handheld device to listen to an audio tour of the collection consisting of object descriptions specially designed for this purpose. The Stanley will also continue its virtual outreach through the Senior Living Communities Program. Conceived of during COVID, the virtual format will continue to allow people across the state to learn about objects from the Stanley, UI Libraries, the Pentacrest Museums and the Office of the State Archaeologist.
Please visit when the Stanley Museum opens and when you have the chance: Sip a cup of coffee in the lobby, sit in swanky red chairs, contemplate “Surrounding” and observe passersby in Gibson Square Park. Head upstairs, walk slowly, read object labels (or don’t, but they are informative), stare at visible brushstrokes, the textures of wood and stone and marvel at color. Your time will be well spent.