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125 years, 125 masterworks: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art puts prized pieces on display

Mildred Pelzer's sweeping #x201c;Symphony of Iowa 1833-1933#x201d; is among the works included in the Cedar Rapids Museu
Mildred Pelzer’s sweeping “Symphony of Iowa 1833-1933” is among the works included in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art’s upcoming exhibition, “125! 125 Masterworks from the Collection.” The late Iowa City artist studied with Grant Wood and Marvin Cone. This 1935 painting is oil on canvas, 80 inches by 121 inches, a gift of Richard T. Feddersen. (Cedar Rapids Museum of Art)
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When you have more than 8,000 works at your fingertips, narrowing the selection to 125 becomes a monumental task — one that kept Kate Kunau busy for several months.

As associate curator for the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, she usually builds exhibitions around a single artist or theme. But for “125! 125 Masterworks from the Collection,” she had the depth and breadth of the museum’s works from which to choose.

From Saturday through Jan. 17, visitors can see her selections, spanning the centuries from Roman antiquities to Andy Warhol’s pop art stylings.

“Any other human could have gone into the collection, picked out 125 pieces completely different from my 125, and it would have been equally as important,” Kunau said. “Definitely, every exhibition is a portrait of the curator and the person who designed it.

“I’ve chosen 125 really good, fun works that say a lot about our collecting process. Our first piece was collected in 1906, so we’ve been collecting for 114 years now. We’ve a very American collection and we’ve changed with the times. We’ve always tried to include local artists in our collection, as well as artists that are on the national and international stages.”

“It’s really fun,” she said, to go through the archives and find pieces she considers important and the artists who should be highlighted not only in the main first-floor galleries, but also identifying the Grant Wood, Marvin Cone, Mauricio Lasansky and Roman works in their own galleries to include with special exhibitions placards.

Process

To underscore the diversity of the collection, she looked for works by artists from different decades, genders and ethnicities. She began by going through the list of pieces given to or purchased by the museum — not the works in storage for the Cedar Rapids Community School District and the Cedar Rapids Public Library. List in hand, she started highlighting the artists who needed to be included in an exhibit celebrating the museum’s 125th anniversary.

“Some pieces were pretty self-evident,” she said, noting that she immediately could name 25 to 30 that needed to be included, like Grant Wood’s “Woman with Plants.” Others are pieces that aren’t displayed that often, or are lesser-known works by well-known artists. Then she had to decide which of the “5 to 250” holdings by a particular artist would best represent their works.

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“The refining process took months,” she said. “It was very overwhelming at first, but I tackled just a little bit each day.”

The final winnowing took about three or four months, and she turned to Executive Director Sean Ulmer for advice, since he had been the museum’s curator before stepping into his current role on an interim basis in 2013, then formally in 2014.

They were striving for variety, so museum visitors will see paintings, prints, watercolors, drawings, ceramics, glass, wood, bronze sculptures and photographs.

Big names

Among the “big names” are Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali; German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer; French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin; Mary GrandPre, who illustrated the Harry Potter book covers in the United States; Malvina Hoffman, Rodin’s last pupil; American pop artists Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein; American illustrator and painter Norman Rockwell; Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky; French master Henri Matisse; and Spanish painter and cubism pioneer Pablo Picasso.

“We have a very impressive collection,” Kunau said. “We do have a really impressive collection of works on paper. There are many prints, and a lot of those works by Picasso and Matisse and Giacometti are works on paper, so I think it’s cool to highlight that’s an area where we’re very strong.”

The anniversary year is the chance for the museum to pull out all the stops for a celebration that began with a massive Impressionism touring show, and will continue with three more Wood retrospectives.

“125 is a really big milestone,” Kunau said. “We’re very excited that we’ve lasted that long, beginning as the Cedar Rapids Art Association in 1895. For me personally, it’s become even more important because this year definitely has taken some turns that we haven’t anticipated. It’s kind of become a symbol of our resilience as an institution, like ‘We’re still having it, we’re still going to get it in 2020.’ ...

“We’re making it happen. We’re gonna keep on rolling with this, and it’s gonna be good.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

If you go

• What: “125! 125 Masterworks from the Collection”

• Where: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE

• When: Saturday to Jan. 17

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• Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; closed Monday

• Admission: $8 adults; $7 college students and ages 62 and over; $4 ages 6 to 18; free ages 5 and under; face masks required

• Related activity: Zoom Doodlebugs: Happy Birthday CRMA! 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Friday, details at Crma.org/events

• Information: Crma.org/

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