Brush with fate: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art celebrates 125 years

Once an art club, today it has become a community treasure



CEDAR RAPIDS — From two oil paintings acquired in 1906, community visionaries have grown the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art from a club into an accredited institution with a $1 million annual budget and about 7,800 art works, including the world’s largest collection of Grant Wood creations.

The museum’s 125-year evolution from the art club’s founding in 1895 is being celebrated all year, beginning this weekend with the opening of a massive touring exhibition of Impressionistic art from the Reading (Pa.) Public Museum. “Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism through the French Lens” will be on view through April 26, along with a local companion exhibit, “Ooh La La: French Works from the Riley Collection,” displayed through April 12.

Both showcase the style of art that was sweeping from France to the United States when the seeds for the museum were planted.

Inspired by art shown at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Cedar Rapids community leaders formed an art club in 1895. Ten years later, they took the first step in a move that has come full circle. That’s when they were offered gallery space on the second floor of the city’s then-new Carnegie Library at 410 Third Ave. SE­ — home to today’s Museum of Art.

With the move, club members incorporated as the Cedar Rapids Art Association and soon began exhibiting works. Local artists joined the cause — including Grant Wood and Marvin Cone — arranging lectures, exhibitions and special events. With growth came change.


In the early 1960s, the Art Association moved into the four-story Torch Press Building at the corner of Third Street and Fourth Avenue SE. The name changed to the Cedar Rapids Art Center, and there it stayed until 1989, when the organization moved back into the renovated and expanded footprint incorporating the Carnegie library, while adding 16 galleries in an adjacent new wing.

Over the years, the community continued to add to the museum’s collection, eventually amassing 289 pieces by Wood; more than 230 works given by the late, pioneering University of Iowa printmaker Mauricio Lasansky in 1986; and 21 Roman portrait busts and other antiquities collected by Nan Riley and her late husband, lawyer Tom Riley, donated in 1996.

“This museum, which is one of the premiere smaller museums in the country, reflects this community in many different ways ... and it’s for this community that we do all of our exhibitions,” said Sean Ulmer, executive director since 2014. He estimates 90 to 95 percent of the museum’s art collection has been donated by area residents.


A delicate art: Folllow priceless paintings on their journey to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art

An art museum connected to local, regional artists

“The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art is somewhat unique in that it has a close relationship to area, regional and Iowa artists,” Ulmer said. “Many art museums tend to forget about their local artistic community. The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, because of its close association with artists like Grant Wood and Marvin Cone, has the local artists in its DNA. And as such, we present work by our area artists in a variety of ways. Obviously, we have a gallery dedicated to Grant Wood and to Marvin Cohn and other people who lived and worked in this in this area. But we continue to present the work of area living artists. It’s an important part of who we are. It’s an important part of our identity and one that we wish to maintain.”

“Many art museums tend to forget about their local artistic community. The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, because of its close association with artists like Grant Wood and Marvin Cone, has the local artists in its DNA.”

- Sean Ulmer

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art executive director


It’s a priceless relationship for working artists like Stan Wiederspan of Cedar Rapids. Now 81, he left a teaching position at then-Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant to become director of the Cedar Rapids Art Center from 1973 to 1978. He spent 25 years operating an art gallery on Mount Vernon Road SE before closing in 2016.

He knows firsthand the importance of the museum’s role in acquiring and exhibiting works by local artists.

“It’s just monumental,” he said. “I’ve been very, very fortunate as an artist living in Cedar Rapids. I’ve not only had the pleasure of doing a number of very large public art projects, but the art museum has treated me extremely nicely. I’ve had two major one-man shows and a number of pieces in the permanent collection. It’s so rewarding to be recognized in that way. I don’t ever envision that I would have the (fame) of Marvin Cone or Grant Wood, but I’m extremely grateful not only to the art museum but to the city for the opportunities given to me.”

Bill Stamats, 59, of Cedar Rapids, another exhibiting artist and an 18-year museum board member, has family ties reaching back to the museum’s early years at the Carnegie building, through his grandparents, Isabel and Herbert S. Stamats. Friends of Grant Wood, they commissioned him to paint “Overmantel Decoration” in 1930, depicting their home on Linden Drive SE. He also painted a portrait of their toddler daughter, Sally Stamats Hedges, in her high chair in 1927. Both pieces are part of the museum’s permanent collection.

“My father (Peter O. Stamats) was instrumental in moving the Art Center into being the Art Museum — along with Henry Royer and Forbes Olberg,” Stamats said. He also has a couple of his own pieces in the museum’s permanent collection, and has had works on view there, most recently in the summer show “Into the Blue,” a juried exhibition showcasing pieces created by Iowa artists in the past three years.


Having such a museum here “is great,” he said. “It’s important for the art scene or the art culture we have, and quite frankly, we have very good artists in our part of the world. Because we’re not in New York or Basel, Switzerland, we don’t get the recognition, but we’ve got really good artists — as good as what I’m seeing elsewhere.

“The museum becomes that cornerstone for the art community in terms of what’s important, and certainly for the visual arts,” he said. “With ‘Into the Blue,’ we’re seeing the ability for artists to have a piece in a museum and having that museum connection, and that resonates for artists. It’s important for them — they want to be in shows like that.”

Diego Lasansky, 25, of Iowa City, is the third generation to be involved with the museum, beginning with his late grandfather, Mauricio, whose work is on display in four permanent galleries, and Diego’s father, Phillip Lasansky, a longtime museum board member who died Jan. 18.

“Having three generations of Lasansky artists represented at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art is incredibly meaningful to our whole family,” Lasansky said, adding that the museum has felt like a second home to him. “This wonderful relationship started more than 40 years ago, and has only grown as more members of the family have become artists and have been represented at the museum. It really is special to be able to be in a space with so much of my family art.”

While still a student at the University of Iowa, his work garnered local, national and international attention and in 2016, the museum gave him his first solo exhibition.

“Sean Ulmer has been such a wonderful friend and mentor to me,” Lasansky said. “He, and everyone at the museum, were so supportive as I prepared for my first solo exhibition, and published my first book. It was very special to me to have my first solo show be at a museum that means so much to my family, and to know that I was joining the legacy of Lasansky artists represented at the museum.”

The latest exhibit: Cassat, Degas, Renior and more impressionists on display for 125th anniversrary

Experiences go beyond the art exhibits

About 35,000 people walk through the museum’s doors and galleries each year, Ulmer said. Staff members are hoping to break the 40,000 mark with the anticipated popularity of the Impressionist exhibition. Other anniversary exhibits include “125 Masterworks from the Collection” during the summer of free admission, followed in the fall by “Grant Wood Revealed,” featuring works not often put on display.

But art isn’t just on the museum’s walls. Activities are planned for all ages, reflecting the museum’s mission to “excite, engage and educate through the arts,” Ulmer noted. Pajama story times, family fun days, exhibit receptions, self-guided or docent-led tours, scavenger hunts for kids and school field trips offer ways for the public to have very personal brushes with art.

One of Education Director Erin Thomas’ favorite activities is having creative writing classes come into the gallery, choose a piece of art and write a story or poem about the piece. “That’s so much fun,” she said.

She also encourages student groups to bring sketchbooks and pencils and draw what they find interesting after touring the galleries.

“I’m always looking for that ‘aha moment’ in somebody’s eyes, where they make a connection to what our exhibitions are, what our collection has,” she said. “But it also brings in people who may not otherwise visit an art museum.”

All of these experiences foster return trips to see the ever-changing exhibitions, as well as cultivate future generations of people who appreciate art and unlock their own potential to enjoy making it, Ulmer and Thomas said.


Poised for the future

During his tenure as the museum’s executive director from 2000 to 2013, Terry Pitts, 69, of Cedar Rapids, is especially proud of helping to grow the museum’s then-$1 million endowment.

“That was insufficient, and the museum was struggling to make budget,” he said. “Endowments are important to the long-term sustainability of museums” since the funds provide financial support in perpetuity. He set the goal at $10 million; Ulmer said the endowment now stands at about $8 million.

Pitts also was at the helm when the Linge family gifted the Grant Wood Studio to the museum, and when the museum borrowed “American Gothic” from the Art Institute of Chicago to anchor the 2005 landmark “Grant Wood at 5 Turner Alley” exhibition that drew 100,000 visitors.

He also ushered the museum through the 2008 flood, where staff and volunteers were able to move all but a few sculptures to upper floors, out of harm’s way from a sewage backup in the basement. The lower-level storage facility was replaced afterward.

“When I took over in 2014, the museum was in a great place, thanks to my predecessor,” Ulmer said of Pitts. “We have a great foundation on which to grow. We’ve been very much living within our means. We’ve been very smart about our growth. We’ve been doing what we can with what we have, and yet, we’ve been moving ourselves forward. We’ve been raising the bar for ourselves.”


More period-correct renovations are planned at the Grant Wood Studio and the staff is striving to create “bigger, bolder, more audacious exhibitions” and expand educational programming.

And to embrace the digital age, the museum is implementing Guide by Cell to help visitors navigate exhibitions and hear descriptions as they walk through the galleries at their own pace. Ulmer realizes that with the internet, people don’t even have to leave home to see great works of art, but nothing can replicate the experience of standing in a museum, face to face with fine art.

“Seeing the Mona Lisa on a device is not the same as seeing the Mona Lisa in person,” Ulmer said. “And while digital platforms offer all kinds of opportunities for people who are never going to get to Paris to see the Mona Lisa ... there is no substitute for seeing the actual work of art in person. ... There are just some things that the digital platforms don’t capture. They capture the surface of things, but they don’t capture oftentimes the mood, and they certainly don’t capture the experience of standing in front of a work of art.”

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