After 14 years without an art museum, the new University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art will finally be ready to open on Aug. 26, 2022.
Local 4 News was the only Quad Cities media to attend a special April 12 preview of the $50-million facility — built by Davenport-based Russell Construction, which also built the 2005 Figge Art Museum at 225 W. 2nd St., Davenport. Since the former University of Iowa art museum was flooded out in 2008, the Figge stored most of the UI collection — which now numbers nearly 20,000 items.
The new Iowa City museum (160 W. Burlington St.) overlooks Gibson Square Park, across the street from the UI Main Library. The facility was built on the former library parking lot, and that parking is now partially enclosed under the museum. In addition to offering public parking, the garage helps with flood mitigation, since any floodwater from the nearby Iowa River would have to fill that space before affecting the building.
“I am so excited; I have been walking on air since the building came together,” Stanley Museum director Lauren Lessing said Tuesday. “I’ve been looking at architect’s renderings for many years, talking to people who are generously providing the funding for this museum.
“To see that come together as a physical museum and be able to walk into it and show it to people, I can hardly sleep I’m so excited,” she said. “For this campus and this community, it’s been a long time – it’s been 14 years.”
“I am just unbelievably honored to be the director that gets to open the doors and welcome people back in to experience this art collection, which belongs to the people of the state of Iowa,” Lessing said.
She credited the Figge Art Museum for being “a very generous and wonderful partner, helping us present portions of our collection over the past decade and more,” she said. “To have it come home 14 years after the flood, is unbelievably moving to me and I know it is to other people as well.”
In 2017, Richard (Dick) and Mary Jo Stanley, of Muscatine, committed $10 million to support the building campaign for the University of Iowa Museum of Art. The gift came from two generations of the family. In honor of the transformational gift, the museum was renamed the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.
The museum (half the building cost provided by bonds from the university) has always been free to the public, as the collection is owned by the public, Lessing said.
“It’s not just what’s on view in the galleries. Like most art museums, we only have a small fraction of our whole collection that can be on view,” she said. “But the whole collection will be here and available on request. We’re really our here to make the collection serve the campus and community, make it accessible to everyone.”
That wouldn’t be the case were it not for several hundred generous donors, the director said. Some gave seven figures, and many gave a few hundred dollars, Lessing said, from around the world.
“Alumni have been an important piece of that puzzle, but they’re not the only people who’ve given to make this museum real,” she said. “It’s a real testament to how much people love this museum, this collection and this campus.”
They had to undertake construction and fundraising during a global pandemic, which speaks to “how committed people are to the University of Iowa, to the Stanley Museum of Art, and this art collection, providing access to it again,” Lessing said.
“I am a very lucky director to have stepped into a community that’s so committed to this museum,” she said.
The $47-million Figge was picked to store most of the UI art collection because of its size and proximity to Iowa City, Lessing said. Sean O’Harrow, the former Figge executive director (2007-2010), served as the UI museum director from 2010 to 2017; he’s now executive director of a contemporary art museum in Kansas City.
Highlights and Russell’s expertise
The three-story, 63,000-square-foot new museum is punctuated by voids formed by two outdoor terraces and a three-story outdoor lightwell. The façade is composed of airy glass and dark brick masonry that has been treated with manganese for a luminous quality.
The interior of the museum features white, light-filled spaces and warm white birch wood detailing to highlight the collection. Significant building spaces include the first-floor lobby and event space, the second-floor exhibition galleries, and the third-floor education suites for studying, teaching, and learning directly from works in the collection.
Designed by architect BNIM Iowa (lead, Rod Kruse), among the Stanley’s highlights:
- The museum will house Jackson Pollock’s world-renowned “Mural,” an 8’ x 20’ painting valued at $150 million.
- The building’s loading dock and freight elevator (with a 21’x10’ interior cab) is designed for this painting to be moved in and out of the building.
- Building is designed to accommodate flooding of the nearby Iowa River – the first floor is 7 feet above grade with parking garage below.
- A 400-square-foot lightwell in the middle of the building that extends 3 stories, bringing indirect natural light into the building.
- Two third-floor outdoor terraces, providing views of the surrounding areas.
- Intricate exterior finish system including custom hand-made bricks, triple- pane glass and perforated metal panels.
- The construction team 3D modeled building systems to facilitate installation and allow maintenance access.
Russell was “fantastic” during the 891 days of construction, employing 300 workers, Lessing said Tuesday. The exterior alone is comprised of 214,888 individual bricks.
“Can you imagine the difficult circumstances of creating a building of this scale, with this complexity, during a global pandemic? And they did it and kept their people safe,” she said. “I have nothing but respect for Russell. They did an amazing job and they made the architect’s vision a reality. It was an ambitious vision.”
“The floor finishes are gorgeous; the detail of the white ash wood is beautiful,” she said. “They had tremendous attention to detail and were also able to stay on schedule, get it done and keep their people safe…I knew that they would do a great job because of the Figge.”
Architects also want to bring lots of light in (as in both museums), but that’s a challenge for curators, Lessing said. “It’s hard on paper, it’s hard on textiles, it’s hard on pigment. I think the architects that designed the building did a wonderful job of striking a balance, so there’s very little natural light that comes in the second floor, but the third floor and the lobby are really awash in natural light.”
The lobby will include a coffee cart, though there will not be a cafe. While the Stanley doesn’t have an auditorium, the library next door does, Lessing said. “That will be a space we frequently use for presentations. It’s like 50 steps from our front door to theirs.”
In 10 years, there likely will be an addition to connect the two buildings, she said.
The Figge-Stanley relationship
Since the Figge and Stanley are just 57 miles apart, they will continue to have a strong relationship once the new showplace opens.
“If we’re bringing speakers here from Europe or Africa, which we’re planning to do, it seems a shame to bring them to Iowa and talk in Iowa City and leave,” Lessing said. “We could do two-part programs also. Michelle was here to have lunch a few weeks ago and I’m frequently at the Figge.”
“I think that’s a fantastic idea, something we’ll definitely pursue,” Figge executive director Michelle Hargrave said Wednesday. “We get artists from all over the world, and they do that too. It’s a missed opportunity for us if we don’t collaborate that way. There will be loan opportunities going forward. There will be curatorial opportunities, as well as programming.”
Five Stanley Museum staff members packed and moved 14,000 pieces of the UI collection from the Figge back to Iowa City, save for several pieces that remain on view in the second-floor galleries until mid-June. They include a Grant Wood, Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann and Sam Gilliam. There are three galleries at the Figge that have permanently shown pieces from the UI collection.
The Figge has a longstanding relationship with both Russell and the Stanley Museum.
“Russell built our beautiful building and remain involved as advisors, contributors to the museum, which we’re really grateful for,” Hargrave said. “With Lauren, we’ve had a collaborative relationship for years. I was aware of her through our shared time in New England and was always very impressed with her. We were both delighted to find ourselves in Iowa and almost immediately upon my arrival here, we got together and started talking about our ongoing relationship.”
“They’re a terrific partner to work with,” she said, noting the Figge has stayed in touch during the whole fundraising and construction process. “My team works daily with her team.”
Both Hargrave and Lessing moved to Iowa from New England — Michelle to the QC in December 2019, formerly deputy director at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, and Lauren to UI in 2018, after serving as director of Academic and Public Programs at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine.
Lessing’s parents—a painter and a sculptor—were both students of Ulfert Wilke, the founding director of the UI Museum of Art (which opened in 1969).
“I was here as a baby and then here a number of times as a young art historian,” she said. “I also watched on my computer in my kitchen in Maine, when the flood swamped the former Museum of Art and I saw community members, students, faculty members, staff coming together to lift the art out of the museum.”
“This is a really special place, so I knew,” Lesssing said of seeking the job here. “Once I came here and met people, and all my ideas about this place were confirmed. I said, I’m gonna get this job or I’m gonna die trying. I didn’t want to work anywhere else.”
“I never had any doubt this museum was coming back,” she said.
“It’s a community center; it’s a place where people really come together to connect with each other and art,” Hargrave said of the Figge. “I was impressed with the way the community supports arts and culture here, and understands how important it is to our well-being.”
She said there’s nothing like seeing great art in person.
“It exposes people to different experiences, different time periods, different voices, and it’s a chance to bring people together. We like to say we are a bridge across our community. We foster dialogue, we foster empathy. We connect people from different parts of the region.”
The Figge also works a lot with schools and other organizations, providing free outreach programs; in 2021, they did 338 days of programming, Hargrave said.
Since 2008, the Figge stored most of the UI collection, providing an opportunity to partner on programming and displaying their collection, to complement what the Figge has, and offer things the Figge doesn’t have, she said.
“We look forward to partnering with Lauren and her team going forward,” Hargrave said. Of the UI pieces, “of course, we’ll miss them when they leave; they’re fantastic works,” she said. “We’re very excited about what’s coming next — the chance to bring more of our works out of storage and we have developed two wonderful partnerships, we’ll be sharing more on in the coming months.”
The Figge has nearly 5,000 works in its collection, and typically has just about 3 percent of those on display at once, Hargrave said. The Pollock “Mural” (1943) was on display at the Figge from 2008 to 2012.
“Mural” is a fantastic work, and Pollock (1912-1956) is “one of the most iconic American artists of the mid-20th century,” Hargrave said. “He was at the forefront of Abstract Expressionism, so to have one of his works — which are among the most valuable in the world — to have such a large and important work here was incredible. To bring that work to the Quad Cities was a really unique experience, something that I know my predecessors are proud of.”
“It traveled around the world and now it’s back in Iowa City, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in person, for the first time,” she said.
During the record spring 2019 Mississippi River flooding, the Figge was not damaged, and some patrons were dining in the Figge Cafe and had an extra close river view, Hargrave said.
“Because of the way our building was built, the back wall — a gray wall along River Drive — that’s our flood wall. We had a little damage to our parking structure, which was underneath the building, but our collections are stored above ground for that reason, and we didn’t have any actual damage to the building.”
New mural in Iowa City
A new colorful mural is being painted in the Stanley lobby, created by Odila Donald Odita, a Nigerian artist who lives in Philadelphia, and has exhibited extensively around the U.S. and the world. He’s a painting professor at Temple University.
“It’s really an honor, when you think about Pollock, in this house of Pollock,” he said at Tuesday’s preview. “I want to make something just as strong as that. I’ve thought a lot about Pollock over the years…He’s really a great artist.”
Odita has been a visiting artist to lecture at University of Iowa in previous years. He hopes his new mural at the museum brings people joy.
Being an art teacher also makes him a better artist, Odita said. Having an art museum like this at a major university is critical, he said.
“You can’t function as a proper university without a museum,” he said. “It’s not only important for art students, to know what the objects are made from, how they were made.”
People from all walks of life are profoundly moved by many kinds of art, Odita said. Of the new museum overall, he said: “It’s fantastic – it’s huge.”
Of Odita’s lobby piece (to remain a few years but not permanently), Lessing said: “I’ve been a fan for years…I knew he was the perfect artist to kick off this series of installations of public art in our lobby, which we’re calling ‘Thresholds.’ Seeing it come together on the wall, I really can’t wait to come to work every morning.”
The whole point of the “Thresholds” series is “to draw people across our threshold,” she said, “to make them curious, to bring them in, to engage them in this space.”
“One of the challenges of having this beautiful space, with so much glass and so many windows, is that sunlight pours in and that’s not so good for pigment, that breaks down over a period of years.”
Lessing wants the entrance to be an art-filled space, including sculptures outside. They will come and go over the years, she noted. One work will be installed in the light well, after a year.
“That will keep people curious, keep people wondering what the next iteration of ‘Thresholds’ will be and hopefully will generate a lot of excitement in that way,” Lessing said.
Among new museum highlights, she loves the three-story light well, open to the sky, where a ceramic work will be installed and she hopes will be a popular gathering space. The spacious front terrace also opens a lot of possibilities, as a place for musical and theater performances and more, Lessing said.
The lobby has an acoustic ceiling, so the sound is very good, she said. “It’ll double as an auditorium space,” she said.
Three classrooms on the third floor will make it possible to bring works out of storage for students.
“The second-floor galleries are perfectly, beautifully proportioned,” Lessing said, noting they have movable walls. “We can tailor those spaces to meet our needs, whether we have a big blockbuster show, or we’re making a gallery that is right-sized for students.”
The classrooms are beautiful and state-of-the-art, and one room features wall segments that can be pulled out to serve as easels, she noted.
“There are so many favorite art works people remember from the old building and want to see again,” Lessing said. “It has been challenging to create an inaugural exhibition that gets a lot of those old favorites out and on view, but also shows off what’s new.”
The first exhibition, Homecoming, opens on Aug. 26, 2022, and will reintroduce the extraordinary collection to the public. Homecoming comprises a series of related installations: “Generations,” which will foreground the University of Iowa’s history of innovative arts education and scholarship; “Fragments of the Canon,” featuring African art collected by a Black Iowan, Meredith Saunders; and “History Is Always Now,” in which the Stanley’s collection of African art will be displayed in a new way that emphasizes movement and cultural exchange through time and across space.
“Homecoming” is the theme because the work is coming home, and being brought back together, Lessing said. “These are works that have meant home for generations of students at the University of Iowa.
Since 2008, the collection continued to grow — many acquisitions came from gifts and purchases were made from endowment income, Lessing said.
A recent purchase was a ceramic sculpture by Donté Hayes, who earned his MFA at UI in 2020, and “who is a superstar,” she said. “We had the opportunity to acquire a work, with private support, and to acquire a work while it was still affordable for us.”
Lessing hopes that Iowa faculty will design their curriculum around the museum collection, which can be brought out piece by piece in the third-floor laboratory. An anonymous benefactor gave a $1.5-million endowment for the third floor, to help the museum hire student employees to bring works out of storage and show them “so that our collection can teach,” Lessing said.
The free museum opens on Aug. 26, 2022, when there will be a 3 p.m. ceremony, including a party with three bands, and curators will give tours. The next day, Saturday, there will be many family activities, including art-making in the park and food trucks. The Cedar Rapids Opera will perform selections from a Grant Wood-themed opera (2019’s “Strokes of Genius”).
For more information, visit the museum website.