University of Iowa plans to get art collection back before new museum is built

Jackson Pollock's 'Mural,' its most famous piece, is currently in Germany

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IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa’s massive art collection, much of it scattered to other places after the devastating 2008 flood, should return to campus in the next 12 to 18 months, according to UI President Bruce Harreld, even though a permanent home for it is years away.

The riverfront UI Museum of Art was badly damaged in the flood, forcing officials for the last eight years to creatively engage audiences by hosting exhibitions in temporary locations, loaning out artwork and sending its most famous pieces — including Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” — around the world.

At the same time the museum works to return much of its 15,000-plus-piece collection, art museum staff members will move their offices to the old art museum along Riverside Drive while officials pursue plans to build a new art museum on land the UI already owns.

That construction project is expected to take four to five years, but Harreld told the Iowa City Noon Rotary Club last week it will cost far less than a now-scrubbed public-private partnership to build a replacement on the southeast corner of Clinton and Burlington streets.

Under that abandoned collaboration, the university would not have bought the property but rather leased the building and land from the developers. For design, engineering, site development and construction, UI officials estimated the cost at about $80 million. That cost — along with the associated lease and a buyout proposal — had officials estimating the total project value at $107 million.

Harreld said he and his staff decided this month to abandon the partnership because of the steep price.

“It seemed like it was a huge investment, huge investment, in another part of the community — and not an integral part of the campus,” Harreld said.

He said the private property was appropriately priced — because of its potential for other uses — but he started wondering if the university already owns land that would do.

“Turns out, we own some land,” he said. “If we use some of that land, what would happen? All the sudden, the economics turned pretty quickly.”

Using UI land for a project of similar scale and type could save about $30 million, according UI Business Manager David Kieft.

“Reductions in new building square footage, through options to utilize some existing UI facility space for portions of the program, will realize even more savings,” Kieft said in an email. “The university intends to maximize those savings while attending to the important matter of appropriately returning the collection to our campus in the shortest feasible time.”

UI officials haven’t disclosed potential locations for a new museum or for housing more of the art collection as it returns to campus before the new facility goes up.

Right now, about 4,000 pieces of the permanent collection are displayed in the Iowa Memorial Union, 11,000-some are at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport and others are elsewhere.

Art Museum Director Sean O’Harrow said the university will continue using the IMU “because the environmentals, security and access are all geared toward art collection management, display and public use.”

The university wasn’t able to return its collections to the former art museum building because it was deemed unsuitable and uninsurable for artwork after the flood.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s denial of funds for a new museum away from the river forced university officials to get creative both in constructing a new museum and finding a use for the old one, which was not a total loss.

O’Harrow this week told The Gazette they’ve decided to use the old Riverside Drive museum for offices and for living-artist presentations and other art projects.

Despite hurdles the art museum faced in showcasing the university’s displaced collection since 2008, it has achieved unprecedented success — blowing away both overall and statewide participation and attendance levels in recent years.

In the 2015 budget year, the Museum of Art drew 221,879 people in Iowa, surpassing the old statewide record of 136,943. In the 2014 budget year, the art museum attracted 538,260 people to its events and exhibits no matter where they were, shattering the previous overall record of 146,470.

Much of that success has been due to “Mural,” a UI-owned piece that has been exhibited at the Getty in Los Angeles and the Venice Biennale in Italy, and currently in Berlin, Germany. It heads to Spain at the end of April.

Harreld, during his Rotary speech last week, praised the museum’s ability to continue engaging audiences but also called for student access to the entire collection — noting its displacement as one of his chief concerns about art museum building plans.

“My first reaction was, ‘You mean it’s going to be another five to six years before we get our art back on campus?’” Harreld said. “We are going to have another generation of students — that will be the third generation, about 12 to 13 years — that our art will not be here.”

The university spent about $2 million on plans for a new museum before abandoning the partnership. Officials said that money was not lost, as they’ll still use design information for an on-campus museum. Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter praised Harreld’s decision to pull back on the deal, calling it an example of “how you change a culture.”

“He asked his team to go back to the drawing board to see if they couldn’t use property that the university already owns rather than downtown property that has better uses,” Rastetter said during a recent recording of the Iowa Press TV program.

He said the high-priced building is as an example of a project “that might have gotten approved a few years ago that now won’t.”

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