New building for the University of Iowa Museum of Art approved

Rendering of the new UI Museum of Art building. — image via the University of Iowa Museum of Art

The plan for a new building to house the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA) has been given final approval by the Iowa Board of Regents, it was announced on Thursday.

“We’re very excited, and there’s also a deep sense of relief,” UIMA Interim Director Jim Leach told Little Village.

The museum’s original building was damaged in the 2008 flood. Since then, the exhibition space available for its approximately 14,000 piece collection has been confined to two rooms in the Iowa Memorial Union on campus and some shared space at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport.

The new plan calls for a three-story, 45,000-square-foot building. It will be built on the site of small parking lot next to the UI Main Library.

Leach, who teaches at the UI College of Law and was appointed UIMA interim director in 2016, said both the Regents and the university administration had been supportive through the long process of developing the plan for the new building.

But that support doesn’t extend to the $50 million price tag for the project.

“So, we’re on our own,” Leach said. “We’re going to have to work hard to raise some funds.”

It’s a challenge Leach is familiar with. He served five terms in Congress, representing eastern Iowa from 1977 to 2007.

The challenge is made harder by the UIMA not having access to a major source of funds that was available to three recently completed arts-related buildings: Hancher Auditorium and the Visual Arts and Voxman buildings. According to Leach, those buildings received more than 60 percent of their construction funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as part of the agency’s post-flood restoration efforts in Iowa City.

“FEMA has been generous to the university, but it has drawn the line at funding the museum,” Leach explained. “The [original museum building] is still intact, so they consider it usable.”

Insurance companies disagree. The museum would not be able insure its collection, which is valued at more than $500 million, if the art was housed in a building vulnerable to future flooding.

It would also violate UI policy. Following the 2008 flood, the university mandated valuable items be kept at least two feet higher than waters would reach during a once in 500-years flooding event.

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Except for an underground parking garage, all of the new building will exceed that requirement.

“The first floor will exceed the standard, but there won’t be insurable works of art on it,” Leach said. “The galleries will be on the second and third floors.”

The museum that fills those new galleries will be one that’s been transformed by its post-flood experience.

“The flood forced us to do things differently than we did before,” Leach said. “Three things happened.”

First, some of the collection has been loaned to other museums for exhibition.

“Our seminal pieces like [Jackson Pollock’s 1943 painting] “Mural” have traveled the world,” Leach said.

“Second, we have intensified our sharing of art around the state. That has been tied somewhat with the fact that in many states, including Iowa, the teaching of art has been eliminated from public schools. So, our taking art to schools was kind of an add-on to the public school system of Iowa.”

“The third thing is that we have really enhanced our outreach via the internet,” Leach continued. “The seminal example of this is that, to the surprise of many, we have one of the finest African art collections in the country. This spring we learned the publisher of the standard textbook on African art has ceased publishing it, because people around the world are using the University of Iowa website for African art studies.”

“In some ways, we’ve become an internet museum. In some ways, we’ve become an outreach museum for the state. And with our most important art, we’ve had an outreach to the world.”

“All this goes to an aspect that we had not been planning on. In effect, it has served as advertisement for the museum,” Leach said. “The new museum is likely to become a destination museum for the region, and even for some people around the country. So, the new museum will take on a stature that our fine, old museum didn’t have.”

Current plans call for construction on the new building to be completed in late 2019.