CEDAR RAPIDS — Thanks to big attendance figures for the recent Edward Hopper exhibition, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art officials have a rosier vision leading up to 2020, when the organization begins its 125th anniversary celebration by filling the first-floor galleries with American and French Impressionist paintings.
That was the prevailing art style when the local Art Club formed in 1895 — a style that influenced the early careers of Iowa artists Grant Wood and Marvin Cone.
Works by French superstars Degas, Renoir and Pissarro will hang alongside pieces by American superstars Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase.
The six are among the artists featured in the traveling exhibit of 68 paintings from the Reading Public Museum in Reading, Pa. Cedar Rapids is its only Midwest stop.
A smaller companion exhibit from the museum’s Tom and Nan Riley Collection will focus on French Impressionists, including a Monet.
The bleak midwinter can be a challenging time for the museum, executive director Sean Ulmer said. But he was thrilled that the 13 Hopper paintings and prints loaned from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City drew 5,323 people from 44 states and 12 foreign countries to the museum from Feb. 3 to May 20.
“We’re very happy with that turnout,” Ulmer said. “To have more than 5,000 people in some of the coldest months Iowa experiences is really a success. ... I was very thrilled to see our numbers as they progressed. I’m delighted so many people took the time to see a rather rare gathering of Hopper’s works.”
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Likewise, the numbers were strong for the Whitney’s massive “Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables,” which featured 27 pieces from the Cedar Rapids museum and drew 282,879 visitors to the Whitney’s new facility in Lower Manhattan.
“That’s a huge audience for Iowa’s most famous artistic son,” Ulmer said, adding those pieces have come home, and certain signature works, like “Woman with Plants,” will return to the first-floor Grant Wood Gallery in July.
The Wood/Hopper exchange had a natural synergy.
Hopper “is basically the Grant Wood of the Whitney,” Kate Kunau, associate curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, told The Gazette earlier. The New York museum holds the world’s largest collection of Hopper works, while the Cedar Rapids museum holds the world’s largest collection of Grant Wood pieces.
Other Iowa contributions to the Whitney’s Wood retrospective came from Coe College and the Iowa Masonic Library & Museum in Cedar Rapids, the Figge Art Museum in Davenport and the Dubuque Museum of Art.
The Hopper exhibit marked the first of three midwinter shows being rolled out to whet the public’s artistic appetite for the museum’s 2020 milestone. Ulmer is counting on the next two winter/spring shows to make a big impression, as well.
A traveling exhibition of 77 historic and seldom-seen photos of President John F. Kennedy will be featured from Feb. 2 to May 12, 2019, followed by the piece de resistance, “Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism Through the French Lens,” opening Feb. 1, 2020.
“We really wanted to find a blockbuster for 2020,” Ulmer said. “We really wanted to celebrate our anniversary, and we looked for a couple of years at exhibitions that were in formation. When we found this particular exhibition on Impressionism, it ticked all the boxes.
“It was perfect, given our history and when we were founded. It made a lot of sense in the fact that both Cone and Wood earlier in their careers were Impressionists, and the fact that it was both American and French — all of those things were very important to us. We were very happy that we were able to sign on to this national tour.”
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It’s one of the more expensive exhibits for the museum, with a $50,000 borrowing fee. Ulmer expects the cost to top $100,000 when factoring in shipping fees, marketing, educational programs and staff time.
While those are significant numbers for the museum, whose primary donations come from individuals, he noted the 2005 Grant Wood exhibition, which featured “American Gothic” on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, cost $500,000 — including insurance for one of the world’s most instantly recognizable paintings.
In comparison, he called the Impressionism exhibit’s borrowing fee “relatively reasonable.”
“Even though it was a rather expensive exhibition for us, we were so excited by it and knew that we can do so much with it,” he said. “We really wanted to share it with this community.”
Subsequent exhibitions in 2020 include a summer showing of 125 masterpieces from the museum’s collection, followed by a fall exhibition of Wood’s lesser-seen and more unknown works.
“People can see the things that don’t get out very often, that really help to complete the picture of Grant Wood’s artistic output,” Ulmer said, adding that shows for 2021 already are in the works, as well. “These are exciting times for us.”
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