116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — There’s an art to opening an art museum.
And 14 years after raging floodwaters forced the University of Iowa to evacuate its riverside showcase, the Iowa City institution is on the brink of filling a new space with artwork, students, guests and intimate performances.
The building will open to the public Aug. 26, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and weekend celebration, including the inaugural exhibition, titled “Homecoming.”
This week, staff members will begin moving into their offices in the Stanley Museum of Art, 160 W. Burlington St. in Iowa City. But it will be a while before the 20,000 objects in the collection — including Jackson Pollock’s landmark, large-scale “Mural” — come to their new home.
Not only does the new $50 million, 63,000-square-foot facility need to acclimatize to protect the priceless collection, it also has to shed the gases from construction materials.
For instance, while most of the flooring is poured concrete on the first floor and white ash on the second and third floors, some carpet also has been installed. All of those surfaces and their protective treatments shed chemicals into the atmosphere, said Lauren Lessing, the museum’s director since July 31, 2018.
“When you design an art museum, you're building a micro environment inside that building that has to be separate from the exterior environment, and carefully controlled,” she said. “We have an incredible HVAC system in the building, where we can very carefully fine-tune the amount of humidity, the temperature in the building.”
The atmosphere is being monitored to see when it reaches the point where it’s safe to move in the art, Lessing noted.
“We’re about 80 percent packed, but we haven't moved a single artwork into the new building yet, and we won't until we know that the process of off-gassing is complete, and the atmosphere is where we want it to be.”
Most of the artwork has been stored at the Figge Museum in Davenport, where the collection went in spring 2009, after initial storage and conservation in Chicago. That summer, about 500 pieces returned to the Iowa Memorial Union for classroom purposes, while space on the third floor housed temporary and traveling exhibitions until the summer of 2018.
Art museum employees have been doing the packing, with “some strategic help” from art movers, Lessing said.
“We decided the most cost-effective way to do this was to move it ourselves. It has saved us a lot of money to do that,” she said. “Had I known that my staff would be moving an entire collection during a global pandemic, I might have paused before I pulled the switch on that, but I didn't know that.
“And so we launched that move, and I have to say I have the best staff in the world. They have done it wearing the same PPE equipment that staff in the hospital had. They worked through a very scary time and they got it done,” she said.
“We're way ahead of schedule. … Maybe with a few exceptions, we will be moved by the time we open our doors, which is really nice.”
Jackson Pollock’s ‘Mural’ returns to Iowa
The museum’s star attraction will be moved in time for the opening, as well.
Pollock’s 8-by-20-foot “Mural” is being stored in New York City, after spending nearly two years at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, beginning in the summer of 2012. The piece went on display there in the spring of 2014, before embarking on a tour that would take it to the Sioux City Art Center from June 10, 2014, to April 10, 2015, then onto museums in Europe and the United States, including the Guggenheim in New York from Oct. 3, 2020, to Aug. 30, 2021.
The Guggenheim stop was especially appropriate, since the museum is named for Solomon Guggenheim. His niece, art collector Peggy Guggenheim, commissioned Pollock to paint the masterpiece. He completed it in 1943, and Guggenheim gifted it to the UI in 1951.
It will have a place of honor in the Stanley Museum, where Lessing said one of the biggest freight elevators in Iowa was specifically built to take the massive piece directly to its new home in the second-floor DeWolf Family Gallery.
Another mural, being created in response to Pollock’s work, will be the first piece visitors see when they enter the new light-filled lobby. Odili Donald Odita, an abstract painter and professor of painting at Philadelphia’s Temple University, will come to Iowa City in April to create his mural as the inaugural piece on temporary display in the lobby.
It’s a space where Lessing said they want to exhibit art, but “we have a little bit of a challenge, because it's all windows,” she said, “and that's great. I love the fact that it will be full of light. (But) it makes it difficult to show works from the collection, because ultraviolet light breaks down pigment. So we can't really show many works from our collection in the lobby.
“So what do we do? Well, we decided that we would commission temporary installations by Iowa artists.”
Odita’s parents were graduate students at the UI in the 1970s, so he spent time in Iowa City as a child, Lessing said.
“He’s a wonderful artist,” she added. “His work is influenced by conceptual artists (and) African textiles from his Nigerian roots. … It’s a really wonderful thing to open with a response to ‘Mural.’ ”
More than a museum
She’s also looking forward to having the lobby function as an auditorium space for musical performances, theater and dance, which she hopes will unfold in the galleries, and “spill out onto our front yard, which is Gibson Square Park.”
The museum building also contains three classrooms — a visual classroom, a visual laboratory and a seminar space. Flexible storage space will allow pieces to easily be retrieved for student use, and all pieces of the collection will be cataloged in a searchable Iowa Digital Library.
“We’re one of the very few university art museums in the country that share a catalog with the library. And that's very purposeful,” Lessing said. “We want people to view our collection. We want students to be able to look at what we've got if they're doing an independent study, and then after that work and request it through a form on our website and be able to have it brought out for their use. These classrooms enable that.”
She also wants the museum to engage with other departments, pointing to a class she once taught for chemistry students to explore the science of art analysis and infrared light to look beneath a painted surface.
Reaching this point has been difficult from the beginning, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied funds to rebuild the museum after the flood. The building could be salvaged and reused for other purposes, but was too close to the Iowa River to house the university’s art collection and touring exhibitions.
The new building is situated above the 500-year flood plain.
The staff has been working out of the old building, which Lessing noted was designed in the brutalist style, made with heavy concrete.
“It’s like being in an old bunker,” she said. “I think it would take probably a nuclear attack to destroy this building, so the building itself still stands.”
She said plans call for turning the building over to the dance department, to repurpose the space.
To move forward without FEMA dollars awarded to other flood-ruined buildings, like Hancher Auditorium, meant the museum would need launch a fundraising campaign. Dick and Mary Jo Stanley of Muscatine committed $10 million to the project, so the university announced the museum would be named for the couple, who each died near the end of 2017.
The campaign raised $25 million — half the cost of new construction, with the other half coming from the university.
“The old museum of art was built with hundreds of contributions from around the state and around the world,” she said. “The new museum of art was built in exactly the same way. It really is a testament to how devoted Hawkeyes are to this museum. Not all, but a lot of those donations came from alumni."
Entering the final stretch, Lessing is thrilled with the outcome.
“The building looks amazing,” she said. "I've been looking at it for so long and (at) architect's renderings. And then, of course, since it was a hole in the ground, and as it came to be a permanent steel frame. As every part of the building was constructed, we were coming in for hard-hats tours to look around.
“Once it finally got to the point where it looked like what the architects had dreamed, it really was a magical moment.”
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