Stanley Museum of Art Opening Celebration
160 W Burlington St, Iowa City, Friday-Sunday, Aug. 26-28, Free
In 2019, the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art was celebrating its 50th anniversary. It also had been nearly 11 years without a home. The floods of 2008, which wreaked havoc across Iowa, hit Cedar Rapids and Iowa City the hardest. The Cedar and Iowa Rivers crested at 31.12 ft and 31.5 ft, respectively, in those major cities. In Iowa City, the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA) suffered greatly, taking enough damage that Lloyd’s of London, which insures the museum’s art collection, declared the building uninsurable.
A new home would have to be built.
The plans for that new home, in the center of campus next to the UI Main Library and Gilbert Park, were approved by the Iowa Board of Regents in August of 2017. They called for a three-story, 45,000-square-foot building — and came with a $50 million price tag, which meant a significant fundraising push for the UIMA. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which had footed the bill for an estimated 60 percent of the construction costs for other flood-affected UI buildings, didn’t share Lloyd’s of London’s assessment of the original UIMA space. Since they judged it in-tact and usable, they wouldn’t fund the new building.
That’s how, in late 2017, the UIMA became the Stanley Museum of Art: in recognition of a $10 million gift — one-fifth of the funds needed for the rebuild — from Dick and Mary Jo Stanley. Dick, who earned his masters at the UI in 1963, was son to C. Maxwell (’26, masters ’30) and Elizabeth (’27) Stanley, who had donated their collection of African ritual masks, religious figurines and other pieces to the museum in 1985. A portion of the gift came from their estate, making the use of the family name doubly apt.
The museum broke ground on its new location on June 7, 2019 — the perfect way to celebrate its 50th. Construction started that September. Those milestones, and others since, have been overseen by the Stanley’s current director, Laura Lessing, who took the reins of the museum July 31, 2018, tossed into the midst of the maelstrom. Lessing is the museum’s eighth director, but of course the first to officially helm it as the Stanley Museum, and she will be the first to preside over this new building — the official Stanley Museum’s first real home.
“This building is new to all of us,” Lessing said in an email to Little Village. “We will be finding out over the course of the next six months what works and what doesn’t, and refining our procedures. My job (as always) will be to support the museum’s excellent staff through this transition, get them the resources they need to do their work, and be a good ambassador for the museum and the University of Iowa.”
Lessing, whose parents studied under the UIMA’s first director, Ulfert Wilke, told Little Village in October 2019, “I really wanted this job … to go to the place where the community cared so much about the arts.” Her career has been anchored in those connections between community and institution, between “town and gown.” She’s borne titles such as “curator of education” and “director of public programs,” spearheading school visit and volunteer docent programs. Her time at the Stanley, leading a museum that only existed as virtual and transient, honed those skills — especially when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, less than two years into her tenure.
“COVID has given us a master class in how to maintain the statewide partnerships we built through our traveling exhibition and education programs during the decade after the 2008 flood,” Lessing said. “We learned how to reach people virtually, and we will continue to offer high-quality, online, educational programs that serve Iowans wherever they live.”
But even while those connections are maintainable, Lessing is eager to deepen connections locally, both across the university and with local partners including “the Iowa City Schools and their Any Given Child program; arts organizations like FilmScene, Riverside Theatre and the Englert; the Iowa City Business District; senior living communities” and more, she said.
“Having this building and the collection in Iowa City makes SO much possible! Now, when I meet with community leaders and organizations and ask, ‘What can we do together?’ we can really make those things happen,” Lessing said. “The museum can host a music series, or a wellness program, or a fashion show. We have a beautiful, welcoming space for people to gather, and an art collection that inspires dialogue and creativity.”
The Stanley Museum is wasting no time showcasing those possibilities. The staff have been enjoying the new building for a few months now, but the public will be welcomed at the grand opening weekend, Aug. 26-28. Remarks from Lessing and UI President Barbara Wilson will run 3-4 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 26 to dedicate the building, followed by light refreshments in Gibson Square Park. At 4:30 p.m., the museum’s doors will open for exploration of the galleries, including the first exhibition in the building.
“I’m excited to see people react to our inaugural exhibition, Homecoming. We’ve put so much thought and effort and love into this exhibition. The museum staff has done a wonderful job and I’m incredibly proud of them and what they’ve achieved. The collection has never looked better,” Lessing said. “I’m also excited about the music. I love having the opportunity to showcase the museum as a performance space,” she reiterated. “Music is a great way to celebrate together as a community.”
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On Friday night, starting at 6 p.m., treesreach, Pictoria Vark and Houndmouth will be performing in Gibson Square Park. Saturday evening at 5 p.m., the Cedar Rapids Opera will offer a limited-seating performance of selections from The Grant Wood Operas: Strokes of Genius (2019; Robert Lindsay Nassif, Jean-Francois Charles, Michael Ching) in the Stanley’s lobby. Other events include curator talks Friday evening, Saturday afternoon juggling lessons and performances from Luther Bangert, art stations in the park to flex your creative muscles and free light snacks all weekend.
“I spent the last four years working hard to bring this collection home to Iowa City, so I’m thrilled to see everything! But I think I’m most excited to see the dialogue between well-known works of art and works that are new to the collection,” Lessing said of the UI’s art collection coming back together under one new roof. “For instance, Grant Wood’s beloved 1931 painting Plaid Sweater will be displayed between two new acquisitions: a 1956 photograph by Gordon Parks and a 2018 sculpture by Simone Leigh. There is a lovely visual harmony between these three works. But what’s more, they all inspire a strong sense of empathy and make me think about what draws us to other people and connects us to one another.”
Genevieve Trainor sees no distinction between art and community. They’re the same picture. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 309.