Within 17 months, two blazingly smart, passionate women moved from New England to become the heads of two of Iowa’s best art museums.
Now those ladies – Michelle Hargrave, executive director of Davenport’s Figge Art Museum and Lauren Lessing, director of the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art – are working together on the September 2022 opening of the $50-million facility in Iowa City.
Since the former UI art museum flooded in 2008, the Figge (225 W. 2nd St., Davenport) has stored most of the university’s staggering 20,000-piece art collection, including displaying its most famous piece – Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” at the Figge until 2012.
The two-and-a-half year construction of the new Stanley Museum of Art (at 160 W. Burlington St., Iowa City) was done by Davenport-based Russell, completed late last month.
“The new building is amazing,” Lessing (the museum boss since July 2018) said in a recent interview. “The new building was also built as a 21st-century museum on an academic campus and it was designed to be a laboratory for teaching and learning. And also a library of global visual culture, so by that, I mean there are lots of teaching spaces in that museum and the display spaces were also designed as teaching spaces.
They have to wait nearly eight months until opening the museum to the public, to properly move in after airing out the building.
“With new construction, you have a lot of synthetic materials that release gases. It’s a kind of chemical respiration process that releases chemicals that are that are actually damaging to works of art,” Lessing said. “We have to be really careful about these works in our care. There are works on paper, that have fragile inks and pigments that are used, and the paper itself is fragile. Oil paint reacts, is very reactive to different atmospheric conditions.
“It takes four months for all of the pumping the HVAC system at full capacity to really get that stuff out of the air, so we have to go through that process,” she said. “It’s going to be April at the earliest before we can begin moving works of art into the building and we have 20,000 objects to move. And we’re doing it ourselves.”
“I have been very, very lucky that the administration at the University of Iowa has believed in this project, and supported it right down the line,” Lessing said. “I’ve worked with a few different provosts and a few different presidents now and they have been very consistent in the support that they’ve offered.”
She was also thrilled working with general contractor Russell Construction of Davenport.
“I knew they would do an amazing job because they built the Figge,” Lessing said. “They built the Figge and it’s such a beautiful building.”
“They have kept this project going right through the pandemic, and they’ve done it while they kept their people safe,” she said. “Our access to the site was really restricted, but I totally respect what they were doing, you know, they were keeping their people safe and that allowed this construction to continue going.”
“They really worked with us to make sure that the capital campaign was successful in addition to putting your heart and soul in that building and making a beautiful building,” Lessing added.
The $47-million Figge (which opened in 2005) 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.
“So there was a nice connection there and it’s served both museums well,” she said. “It was a very nice arrangement. I think it gave us an exhibition space in the Quad Cities and expanded our audiences out in that direction. So it’s been a really great arrangement and I’ve had the pleasure of working with two directors at the Figge since I arrived and they’re both wonderful directors. So we want to continue those partnerships.”
“I love the Figge,” Lessing said. “I really do. I can’t thank them enough for the service; it’s been really great to have those galleries on the second floor, as really an outpost of this museum of art, and art students were able to reach those galleries and work with objects while they were on display.
“The public has enjoyed seeing the work there and it really has been a win-win situation,” she said. “I had the pleasure of coming out and doing some educational programs at the Figge early on before the pandemic shut down.”
The Figge offers free admission for University of Iowa students, faculty, and staff with university ID cards, and Stanley members with their membership cards.
Moving the UI collection from the Figge started in early 2020, but was put on hold during COVID, and now about 80 percent has been packed up and some already moved to Iowa City at off-site storage, Lessing said.
She also really admires Figge executive director Michelle Hargrave, who moved from New England (in December 2019) to Iowa, formerly deputy director at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut. Lessing was formerly director of Academic and Public Programs at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine.
“She does not remember me, but she was in the New England Museum Association,” Lessing said of Hargrave. “She was very active there while I was also involved in that through my position at Colby. And so, I certainly was familiar with who she was and I was impressed by her before she ever came here. So when I heard that the Figge had hired her, I was just really, really happy and reached out to her, before she moved to Iowa.”
“I can’t wait to walk through with her and talk about programs” in the new museum, Lessing said, noting they hope to continue partnering with the Figge.
“It’s been wonderful to partner with the University of Iowa since 2008,” Hargrave said Friday. “In addition to storing their collection, we had an opportunity to share some of their incredible works of art with our audiences in our 2nd floor galleries and to collaborate on programming with them. As a result, we were able to expand our offerings to our community, giving visitors to the museum a chance to experience new artists, cultures, scholarship, and perspectives.
“The UI staff have been fantastic to work with,” she said. “Moving such a large collection out of another museum is not something that is done every day, and I thank Lauren and her team for their professionalism, creativity, and flexibility, as we planned for and navigated this monumental undertaking.
“We’ll miss having the UI collection in the museum, but this presents an opportunity for us to bring more of our own works of art out of storage and into our galleries, including some exciting new acquisitions,” Hargrave added. “And I know that we’ll continue to collaborate with the UI going forward. Lauren and I have already had conversations about doing so. She is full of great ideas and makes things happen. Everyone in our field who knows her raves about her, including me. I’ve been impressed with her since our first conversation since before I moved to Iowa, and I look forward to continuing to work with her!”
“When I was at Colby, the Colby Museum and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and the Bates College Museum of Art really worked together as a consortium and we often had exhibitions that complemented one another in ways that ensured audiences at one museum would then track down the road to the next museum,” Lessing said.
She and Hargrave have talked about doing something similar here, including bringing speakers to both Iowa museums.
“I think there’s a lot of work that we can do thinking about consortium in the state of Iowa and maybe we can share collections,” Lessing said. “I mean, we’ve done that successfully since the flood. There’s no reason why there can’t always be work like that.”
Returning to the Midwest
She is the eighth director of the UI museum, which first opened in 1969. Lessing played a leading role in fundraising and planning for the new $50-million, 63,000-square-foot museum to host exhibitions from the museum’s collection and provide space for study, research, and storage of artwork. The new facility is adjacent to the UI Main Library and next to Gibson Square Park.
“Lauren brings a wealth of experience and is widely respected in the art world,” Sue Curry, UI interim executive vice president and provost, said in 2018 announcing the appointment. “She has tremendous vision and believes in the integral role that the Stanley Museum of Art plays in the academic mission of the University of Iowa.”
A 53-year-old Indiana native, Lessing said her parents—a painter and a sculptor—were both students of Ulfert Wilke, the founding director of the Stanley Museum of Art. “University art museums have the capacity to be nimble and experimental, and the Stanley is well positioned to lead the field with new and innovative practices to educate, enrich, and empower a diverse audience,” she said in 2018.
Lessing holds a Bachelor of Arts in fine art from Earlham College, as well as a Master of Library Science degree, an MA in history of art, and a PhD in history of art from Indiana University, Bloomington.
“Coming back to the Midwest after being in New England, there’s something really nice about it,” she said earlier this month. “I loved Maine; it was beautiful up there, but the culture is really different, you know. There’s just an easy warmth to the people in the Midwest.”
“I wanted to come to a place where I could do something new and then I have this personal connection to Iowa because my parents had been art students in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s in Louisville, Kentucky, and their professor was Ulfert Wilkie, who had come to Iowa to found the museum.
“There were just a lot of nice connections to this place. But there’s something really special about the University of Iowa and Iowa City, and I love Midwestern college towns in general,” Lessing said.
Using the collection for hands-on instruction
The UI museum collection was always used to teach, Lessing said.
“They really wanted to build an art collection so that students at the university could learn from the best part of the collection,” she said. “So they came up with this thing, they called the Iowa idea. And they wanted to use works of art to teach.”
The art museum plans to have its entire collection digitized and available for viewing online by the time of opening in September.
“In the Iowa Digital Library, you can search by keyword and pull up at this point today, a substantial portion of our 20,000-object collection in that way and see images and find descriptive information,” Lessing said.
It’s rare to have a university museum collection integrated with library collections, but “it reflects the ways that we are working together with other collectors holding units at the University of Iowa, to support teaching and learning,” she said. “We work really closely together. We’re close to the library, not just physically, but through the programs that we offer and through the work that we do.”
“I mean, museums are libraries. They are a certain kind of library, and I’m a librarian,” Lessing said. “I have a degree in library science. So I take that really seriously. Access is a huge part of what we plan to offer in the new building. We want to function like a library. And so, it’s really crucial that people both on-campus and off-campus be able to search the Iowa Digital Library, find objects in our collection and request to see them.”
“And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a student, a faculty member or just a citizen of the state,” she said, noting the museum collection is owned by everyone in Iowa.
‘Even in a gallery floor, a number of the walls are movable so we can really reconfigure those gallery spaces, very flexibly, and that is so important for teaching,” Lessing said.
‘There’s that Iowa idea again — the idea that you leverage the art collection that’s here for experiential learning and that means, coming in and seeing the works of art and being able to see them up close and personal, but it also means really working with them, thinking about how to install them in exhibitions in real space. So that’s an opportunity.”
Pollock moved from New York to Iowa
Jackson Pollock’s world-famous “Mural” (1943) was first offered to Yale University, in New Haven, Conn., before landing in Iowa City.
Donated by Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) to the art museum in 1951, “Mural” has been a longtime resident at the University of Iowa, and is coming back after touring the world for years.
Commissioned by the New York art impresario to create a mural for the foyer of her ritzy East 61st Street townhouse, Pollock opted to work with a massive swath of stretched, Belgian canvas rather than the wall itself so the piece could later be relocated, if needed, according to a December 2019 feature in Iowa Magazine.
“She knew she was wanting to go back to Europe and live in Venice and although she had directed Pollock to make that painting on a movable canvas and not directly on the wall in the townhouse specifically, so that she could take it back to Europe with her,” Lessing said.
“She really understood how heavy a painting that size would be, it’s six hundred pounds, not counting its travel case. And so at the end of the day, she decided not to bring it back to Venice with her,” she said. “And so she wanted it to go to a place that really used its art collection for teaching. At the time, it was really Yale, that was offering master’s degrees in fine arts.
“And she offered it to Yale first and then Yale didn’t want to pay the shipping on an object that heavy and so Iowa was happy to take it and have it shipped all the way out to Iowa,” Lessing said. “We had no problem paying the shipping and so we’re very happy that it did.”
Guggenheim knew the excellent reputation of UI’s art school and the art professor Lester Longman. In 1936, Longman joined the UI faculty as head of the Department of Graphic and Plastic Arts, and also served as professor of History and Appreciation of Fine Arts until 1958.
“At the time, he was doing really pioneering things and buying contemporary art for the program here,” Lessing said. “We had the writing program in place here at that time, so like the University of Iowa has a long history with the innovative teaching, learning and research.
“It was the first university anywhere to recognize creative work as graduate-level research,” she said. “Art had an equivalent to academic research. That was part of the Iowa idea and we really are arguably the most important university anywhere in terms of graduate research in the arts.
“So all of that legacy has been so important just for shaping what art production is in the Western part of the world,” Lessing said. “When I heard that this position was open at Iowa, all of that aura was part of what brought me here.”
How the museum persevered during pandemic
All the $50 million for the new museum has been raised, and hundreds of people around the state of Iowa and worldwide have given to make this building possible, she said.
Half the total was raised privately by March 2021, and UI covered the other $25 million, Lessing noted.
“To have finished that campaign during a global pandemic, I think that really speaks to how much people love the University of Iowa; how much they love this museum and want to see it back, and the faith that they had in the university,” she said.
“I think if we’ve learned anything over the last couple of years, it’s the role that the arts have to play in people’s general well-being,” Lessing said. “The arts are really a component of a healthy life and we can do a lot in terms of lessening feelings of isolation — bringing people together in real or virtual communities. And giving people an outlet for their imagination and their creativity.”
Lessing said she inherited really wonderful outreach programs set up by her predecessors since 2008, creating a traveling UI museum that reached tens of thousands of students all over the state.
“All 99 counties, we travel in vans, with works of art that we had acquired specifically for teaching,” she said. “A measure that was put in place to continue serving teachers and school children in the state of Iowa while we didn’t have a building and then similarly, we had a wonderful traveling exhibition program called ‘Legacies for Iowa,’ that was put in place to send works of art out around the state to other museums.”
“Those are great programs that were designed to be temporary, but to bridge us to the new building and really helped us function as a museum without walls for more than a decade,” Lessing said.
One of the challenges with the new museum opening will be how to continue serving the entire state.
“There’s something really special that happens when children are in front of artworks, when they’re out of their classroom, and they have those expeditionary learning experiences,” Lessing said. “But there’s only so far you can reasonably expect a bus to travel and Iowa’s a big state physically.”
“The pandemic has really helped us think more about how you reach people remotely,” she said. “We need to think about reaching people who can’t come to the museum and so we have two ideas. One is to provide continuing education for educators. That would take place here on campus and we began doing that before the pandemic hit.”
The museum also offers remote continuing education, Lessing said. “We were able to purchase really high-quality camera equipment through a grant that we got through the CARES program to continue reaching seniors and senior living communities, and we will be able to use that camera equipment to visit classrooms virtually even after we open the building. So that we can continue providing learning opportunities for teachers and school children all over the state even after we open.”
Remember Pollock in Jan. 28 program
The UI museum is promoting a special documentary on Pollock, “Remembering Jackson,” which will air online Friday, Jan. 28, from 3 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.
Celebrate Pollock’s 110th birthday with this free virtual event. Take a tour of the Pollock-Krasner home and studio, and enjoy a presentation about Pollock’s life and work. Joyce Raimondo, Education Coordinator for the Pollock/Krasner National Historic Site at Springs, New York, will be your host, joined by special guests with first-hand recollections of Pollock.