The new Stanley Museum of Art will serve as ‘a library and a laboratory,’ says its director, bringing art to all majors

Witching Hour: Challenges, Opportunities, and Planning for the Future at the University of Iowa

Englert Theatre — Saturday, Nov. 2 at 3 p.m.

Lauren Lessing, director of the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art — courtesy Witching Hour

Lauren Lessing began serving as the eighth director of the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art in July 2018, and less than nine months later, presided over the ceremonial ground-breaking of the new site for the museum.

UI’s renowned art collection (arguably one of the top university collections in the United States) was displaced by the floodwaters of 2008. It has been dispersed to museums throughout the Midwest since, but will soon return to be displayed at home, hopefully by 2022. This means that Iowa City will once again feature the magnificent triptych “Karneval” by Max Beckmann, Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic no. 126” and — most famously — Pollock’s “Mural.”

Lessing was excited, she said, to “come to a place where I can build something.” Part of that excitement stems from the flood response. She visited Iowa City and UI in 2004 for a conference and was impressed by “how the arts were woven into the community.” But she was even more impressed, in 2008, watching the community come together.

“I really wanted this job,” she said. Lessing aspired “to go to the place where the community cared so much about the arts.”

Lessing’s ties to the University of Iowa run a generation deep. Her parents, a painter and a sculptor, studied under Ulfert Wilke, the first director of the Stanley Museum. It was meaningful to her, she said, to be appointed to a position once held by someone so important to her family.

“They spoke very reverently about him,” she said. “He was almost a God-like figure.”

The Stanley Museum marks its 50th anniversary this year, although the building has not been in use as a museum for the past 10 years. The team that Lessing now helms has filled that 10-year gap with creative answers to the question of how a “museum” can be an institution beyond being anchored in a physical location.

University representatives (left to right) Rod Lehnertz, Laura Lessing, Bruce Harreld, Sue Curry and Lynette Marshall are digging their moment at the Stanley Museum of Art groundbreaking ceremony. — Rachel Wachter/Little Village

“I am incredibly impressed by how the staff here, and the donors, have made it possible for us to be a museum without walls for over a decade,” Lessing said. She cited the school visitation program, which has reached more than 85,000 K-12 students since its inception in 2008 and emphasizes the importance of teaching with actual objects. It’s one example of innovations “born out of necessity” that have pioneered new kinds of models for community art integration across the country.

“I know that being located on a research university campus is a huge advantage,” Lessing said. “We’re a catalyst and facilitator for the ideas that emanate from the museum as a whole. I hope the museum is a place where faculty can come together and create shared projects, and a space where a range of thinkers, whether in the university or community, can use our collection to look at projects beyond art and art history — a space for dialogues that confront us all.”

Lessing and the staff of the Stanley Museum have just completed their five-year strategic plan, which will help to ensure that the museum is “a crucial part of education for all students” regardless of program or major. Lessing also hopes that the new building will serve both as “a library and a laboratory” for students in the humanities and STEM fields. She is passionate about the ways art pieces can serve as focal points, where technology and creativity combine to facilitate new kinds of learning, such as in the program piloted earlier this year in which CT scans were used to reveal new details in objects from the museum’s African collection.

The Stanley is not waiting for the new building to open to expand beyond art and art history. “The whole museum staff is here to teach,” Lessing said. “As we run the museum, we should be teaching as we do that.”

Lessing’s event at Witching Hour 2019, titled Challenges, Opportunities, and Planning for the Future at the University of Iowa (with UI Provost Montserrat Fuentes and President Bruce Harreld), is her first immersive experience of the festival. But her approach to curating dovetails nicely with how the interdisciplinary and interactive festival tends to ignore traditional boundaries in its creative presentation of performances and topics.

Her talk will be on the nature of the UI’s direction in education, but her personal artwork ties into the themes of Witching Hour as well. Her most recent creative project, “apocalyptic embroidery,” blends the traditional, polite, idealized 18th-century domestic art — used to create an orderly, idyllic home — with monsters, aliens and asteroids invading and exploding domestic spaces.

“The contrast between the stitching and tiny details and the idea of the world coming apart felt personally cathartic and satisfying,” Lessing said. “I’m too busy now, but I do find myself returning to making when I need to work through something. It plays an important role in keeping me centered and making sense of how to be human in all the ways that’s fraught in the early 21st century.”

Lessing said she is excited to tackle the challenge of attracting patrons who might not normally engage with an art museum.

“Museums have turned around to face their audiences in new ways,” Lessing said. “Millenials and younger generations don’t relate to cultural institutions the way their parents did. Young people in the era of my parents came to cultural institutions to learn how to be middle class, bending and shaping themselves to emulate the elite. Today, young people want to be active makers of meaning. I don’t want to direct in the same way as Wilke — I’m not here just to teach people how to see, but to be part of a conversation where I learn as much as I teach, and for the museum to lead this.”

Daniel Boscaljon is a public intellectual and experimental humanist. Find information about upcoming workshops, including an upcoming collaboration with the Iowa Writers House on Oct. 26, at This article was originally published in Little Village issue 273.

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