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New University of Iowa art museum building on legacy
Stanley Museum pushing boundaries for students, community and viewers
IOWA CITY — From concept to creation, the University of Iowa’s new Stanley Museum of Art was built on risks, Director Lauren Lessing said.
And that concept goes all the way back to the 1920s, stretching over the next hundred years and into the future.
“The University of Iowa has a long and storied history of taking risks, and this museum is a risk,” Lessing told The Gazette on Aug. 17, just days before the doors to the $50 million state-of-the-art facility will open to the public with fanfare Aug. 26 to 28.
“It was a risk when we built (the former) museum in 1968 and opened it in 1969. And it was a risk when we broke ground for this building before the capital campaign had been completed,” she said.
“And this exhibition that we're opening (Aug. 26) is a risk. We're doing things that we've never done before. … We’re (also) showing art works that people know and recognize and have been longing to see for the last 14 years.”
At a glance
What: University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art
Where: 160 W. Burlington St., adjacent to Gibson Square Park
Opening: Ribbon-cutting and dedication 3 to 4 p.m. Aug. 26, with festivities, performances, tours and more continuing through Aug. 28, 2022; schedule and details at stanleymuseum.uiowa.edu/
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday
Among those is the star attraction of the “Homecoming” exhibition: Jackson Pollock’s landmark “Mural,” commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943 and gifted to the university in 1951. It hasn’t been on view in Iowa City since the 2008 flood.
“And we're showing work that maybe people didn't know we had, that we have acquired since the flood, that really push us in ways that I think will be startling to people. I expect to get some pushback, because it's new for us,” Lessing said.
“ … We are taking a risk in terms of showing artwork that is really experimental and daring. Peggy Guggenheim is not the only donor who has really taken a risk (and) had faith in us to give us precious works of art. Artists sometimes have left their entire collection to the university,” she said.
Among those is Lil Picard, a noted counterculture artist from the Dada period emerging during World War I in Berlin and Zurich, in reaction to the horrors of war.
“She made this really experimental, challenging work in Germany until Hitler and the Nazi party came to power. And then she had to flee because not only was she a Jew, but she was also what the Nazis would have considered a degenerate artist,” said Lessing, who also is an art historian and educator. “Her life was doubly threatened, and so she had to flee with one suitcase.”
Picard landed in New York, where she became the oldest member of Andy Warhol’s studio, The Factory. Her work continued to be “cutting-edge and experimental” through the 1960s, Lessing said.
“Then she gave her entire body of work to the University of Iowa. Some of it is at the library, some of it is here in the museum. We have a number of works by Picard on view, and I think they're going to be challenging for people to see today. She was really ‘out there.’ …
“It'll be really interesting to see how people react to having an upside down, partially burned mannequin hanging by one ankle, next to artwork by recognized masters like Robert Motherwell. I think that will raise some eyebrows.”
Taking risks is how students learn, Lessing said. It’s how Pollock learned, when he stared at an 8-foot-by-20-foot canvas, knowing whatever he painted could be the turning point in his career, allowing him to give up his job as a janitor at what would become the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and devote his life to creating art.
“For the actual painting, he took a deep breath, and did something that nobody had ever done before,” Lessing said. “He did something that was entirely his own. And that was a huge risk for him.
“So that is what we're trying to teach students here at the University of Iowa to do. Peggy Guggenheim, who was a brilliant woman, recognized that that's what universities are for — to teach students to absorb, absorb, absorb from the wonderful minds who are here teaching. And then to take that knowledge, and to do their own thing with it — to turn it into innovation to turn it into creativity that is their own. That is hard to do on a lot of levels. It is hard to assimilate information from your teachers so thoroughly and make it your own so completely, that you can turn it into your own work.
“It's really, really hard to take risks, but that is what universities exist to do.”
Picard also recognized the UI’s place in the art world, and building on the strength of her donation, the UI has one of the world’s foremost collections of archival material related to the Dada movement, Lessing noted.
“We have always had this history of being a great public university for the arts, but also a public university for the arts that is not afraid to experiment and take risks.”
The Stanley Museum of Art builds on the legacy of fine arts classes dating back to 1880s, which turned into formal programs after the turn of the 20th century. In the 1920s, UI President Walter Jessup and Graduate Dean Carl Seashore created the “revolutionary” Iowa Idea that would merge liberal arts studies with studio art courses and art history and theory.
The three-story Stanley Museum will house exhibitions and visible storage on the second floor, with visual classroom and visual laboratory space, along with more storage and two outdoor terraces on the third floor. The first-floor lobby will welcome students and the public for social events, small performances, lectures, study space and a site for family-friendly activities.
These spaces are not just havens for art majors. They are open to any discipline across campus to show students the correlation and application of, for instance, art and science. The classrooms also are open to K-12 instruction and community interaction.
"I’m very interested in collaborative work,“ Lessing said. To that end, during the pandemic, she created the country’s only nationwide directory of art museums, currently listing 470 members.
“I'm really eager to work more closely with my colleagues to think about ways we could have a collection-sharing network (and) perhaps collaborate on public programs.”
Sean Ulmer, executive director at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, also is excited to explore these prospects, and has had preliminary conversations with Lessing about collaborations between the two Corridor museums.
“Now that they are back online, there are all kinds of possibilities where our two organizations can work together collaboratively in a way that we obviously haven't been able to do for the last 14 years,” he said.
University museums play an important role in the fabric of a state like Iowa, where cities of all sizes have their own art museums.
“Museums, especially those in smaller communities such as Iowa City, help bring diverse cultural experiences and an understanding of traditions, imagery, techniques and crafts from the past to life,” printmaker and UI graduate Diego Lasansky, 27, of Iowa City, said in an email interview with The Gazette.
“To be able to showcase art and objects from around the world is highly important to developing a strong cultural understanding of the world we live in. The University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, the Des Moines Art Center, and many others museums around the state help expose our communities to perspectives they might not otherwise have the opportunity to engage with. …
“For students and faculty, having a university museum is essential to research, inspiration, and exchange of ideas,” Lasansky added.
“With the Stanley Museum of Art’s diverse collection of regional, national and international art, Iowa City and the surrounding community has felt the loss of this cultural center for over 12 years now.
“I can say from experience as a student, community member and artist, having access to a local collection like the Stanley’s is incredibly valuable. To be able to engage and interact with a collection so diverse, located in the heart of campus, is absolutely critical to the success of students no matter their area of study.”
Lasansky is the third generation of his family, raised in Iowa City, to continue the legacy of his grandfather. The late Mauricio Lasansky, an Argentine native who moved to the United States in 1943, established what would become an internationally recognized printmaking department at the UI in 1945.
Among the more than 20,000 objects in the Stanley Museum’s collection are pieces from many members of the Lasansky family of artists. There are more than 100 from Mauricio’s work, many of which were gifts from collectors around Iowa.
Diego Lasansky, who has had exhibitions coast to coast and abroad, sees the UI facility fulfilling a crucial mission in showcasing Iowa artists and UI-educated artists.
“At their core, museums are an archive preserving images, objects and artifacts for generations to learn from, see and interact with,” he said. “It is absolutely critical for the success of any museum to have an understanding of local art and how it impacts the community.
“The Stanley has been highly successful in acquiring artwork from local and regional artists, along with accepting collections of art from families in the community. I believe that if the Stanley continues to collaborate with the community, current students, faculty, alumni and local artists in the state, they will continue to maintain and strengthen their reputation among university museums.”
Seeds for growth
The late Richard and Mary Jo Stanley recognized the importance of rebuilding the museum after the 2008 flood rendered the former site unsuitable for housing and exhibiting art. In the fall of 2017, the Stanleys, Muscatine natives, committed $10 million to the new facility’s My Museum capital campaign.
Adding donations from more than 500 households, the campaign exceeded its $25 million private giving goal, in tandem with $25 million from the university to finance the $50 million museum.
Lessing’s goal over the next four years is to raise funds to increase the museum’s endowment to further expand its outreach and programming.
The Stanleys, for whom the museum is named, saw the building plans and models, but Richard died Nov. 17, 2017, followed by Mary Jo on Dec. 14, 2017, so they didn’t get to see these visions come to fruition.
“It makes me very sad that I didn't get to meet the Stanleys personally,” said Lessing, who was named the UI museum’s director in August 2018. “But I think they would be really pleased with what we have done with their extraordinary gifts.”
In addition to the Stanleys, Lessing said the museum “lost a number of donors over the last four years.”
“I will never go through the doors of the museum without thinking of them and what they made possible,” she said.
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