University of Iowa Museum of Art sees total attendance drop, but a statewide increase

Without a permanent home after floods, museum has had to get creative with engaging audiences

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IOWA CITY — Overall participation and attendance at University of Iowa Museum of Art events last year dropped nearly 42 percent from the previous record-breaking year when its Jackson Pollock mural attracted thousands of viewers.

The mural’s exhibition at the Getty in Los Angeles during the 2013-14 reporting year attracted 304,349 visitors alone. That’s nearly as high as the 313,971 visitor total tallied at all the museum’s programs and events during the 2014-15 reporting year, which ended June 30.

Thanks to the Pollock mural, which the Wall Street Journal praised as one of the world’s “most-talked about exhibits,” the total art museum attendance of 538,260 for 2013-14 shattered the previous record of 146,470, set in 2012-13.

Despite the overall drop in the 2015 reporting year, the art museum’s attendance surpassed the 2013 level. And it broke a record for statewide participation.

Museum of Art events last year attracted 221,879 people in Iowa, besting the previous statewide record of 136,943, according to UI officials. And officials said total 2015 attendance numbers could have been higher if all 250,000 visits to a “blockbuster show” at the Venice Biennale in Italy had occurred before June 30. Only about 92,000 did, museum director Sean O’Harrow said.

Helping boost the statewide numbers was the museum’s new “Integrated Outreach With Art” program, a free public partnership matching museum offerings with the needs of Iowa organizations through art loans, exhibitions, education and consulting.

That program’s free art exhibition and loan initiative attracted 197,083 visitors at venues across Iowa, while its education schools and public programming taught 14,888 K-12 students and 9,908 others in college classrooms, community centers and other public spaces.

The Museum of Art launched the outreach program in 2014 — and has taken other creative initiatives to engage audiences — out of necessity following the 2008 flooding.

Crews saved the university’s art collections by removing them just before floodwaters inundated the building along Riverside Drive. But the space was deemed unsuitable for the artwork to return.

Because the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected appeals for help building a new museum away from the river, officials have pursued a public-private partnership.

H+H Development Group of Iowa City and BNM Architects of Des Moines and Kansas City have been designing what they expect will be a 60,000-square-foot museum on the southeast corner of Burlington and Clinton streets, across from the new Voxman Music Building.

UI officials have said they plan to share design images with the Board of Regents soon, with completion expected sometime in 2018.

In the meantime, the UI has continued to display its collections through traveling exhibitions, programs and loans and also at temporary locations including the Iowa Memorial Union and Davenport’s Figge Art Museum.

More than 197,000 visitors viewed the museum’s outreach exhibitions in Sioux City, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Grinnell, Muscatine and Davenport — topping the previous record of 96,219.

It counted 3,629 visitors at its IMU exhibit last year and 5,839 at its other smaller Iowa City-based programs. Both of those tallies were down from the previous year.

O’Harrow said the dip at IMU was due to flood recovery-related work. “This limited access that in turn limited attendance numbers,” he said. “Things are back to normal now.”

Countering those dips was the rise in website traffic, which O’Harrow said occurred after significantly more content was added.

Of the record-breaking 126,502 online users, 70,536 spent more than five minutes examining the African art portion of the site.

“This year’s performance, yet again, demonstrates why the UIMA is so important to the mission of the university, for public higher education, and for economic development in Iowa,” O’Harrow said in a statement.

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