From old Art Building, new creations at University of Iowa

Historic UI site could become an innovation center

The University of Iowa Art Building, along N. Riverside Drive in Iowa City, could be renovated into a new Center for Ent
The University of Iowa Art Building, along N. Riverside Drive in Iowa City, could be renovated into a new Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation. The university expects to spend between $20 and $25 million in private gifts to renovate the building, which has been closed since the historic 2008 flood. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — After icing plans for a new “Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation” this year amid funding cuts that prompted campuswide belt-tightening, the University of Iowa is reviving the concept with a twist — reincarnating its flood-ravaged Art Building along the Iowa River.

UI officials this week will ask for Board of Regents for permission to convert the Depression-era Art Building, which has been vacant since the 2008 flood, into an innovation center that will cross disciplinary boundaries and unite campus minds through experimentation, education, design and creation.

Costs to repair, flood-proof and convert the 1936 building — where Grant Wood once created art — are expected to reach $20 to $25 million, according to UI officials. The money would come from private gifts, in hopes of debuting a new innovation center by spring 2021.

Administrators have considered an innovation center for years, paying consultant Bruce Mau and his Massive Change Network $250,000 — and up to $35,000 in expenses — to visit campus last fall and shepherd concepts for a new center through workshops involving local dignitaries and business leaders.

The university last summer listed a new $30 million entrepreneurial center among anticipated capital projects for 2018, identifying a possible site in a request to buy properties at 109 E. Market St. and 128 Clinton St. for $2.7 million.

But the center stalled as part of a five-month moratorium on new campus construction that UI President Bruce Harreld imposed after lawmakers took back for a second straight year millions in already-committed appropriations in the middle of the budget term.

The university took other cost-cutting steps before recently confirming plans to lift the construction moratorium as scheduled at the end of this week.

In a five-year capital plan the university is scheduled to discuss with the Board of Regents this week, UI projected revitalizing its Art Building would cost $35 million through 2022. But that included construction of a separate new structure nearby, according to UI spokesman Tom Snee.

“After doing more study, we’ve decided we can fit the innovation center’s anticipated programming into the existing building alone for $20 to $25 million,” he said. “The additional structure may be something we look at in the future, but it’s not currently being pursued.”

Innovation center programming remains under development, according to UI Tippie College of Business Dean Sarah Gardial.

“We will meet with deans, faculty members and many other campus partners in the coming months to gather their ideas,” Gardial said in a statement. “We want to ensure the innovation center is a welcoming place for potential innovators and entrepreneurs from all across campus, students and faculty in every college and department and from around the state of Iowa.”

It’s expected to meet the needs of students by providing hands-on experience; faculty by offering resources, support and recognition for venture creation; deans by creating more opportunity for collaboration; alumni by welcoming their time and talent engagement; and community partners by improving access to UI resources.

“The historic Art Building would serve as a much-needed collaborative environment replete with modern tools to support new idea development,” according to Board of Regents documents. “The innovation center would be anchored by the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center and would include active participation by all 11 colleges.”

Interim Provost Sue Curry said the proposal seems an ideal breeding ground for innovation.

“When an epidemiologist works with a health policy analyst in the College of Public Health building, they each bring distinct perspectives and unique skills to the discussion, and the research goes in new directions,” Curry said. “When an epidemiologist works with an engineer or an art professor or a chemist in the innovation center, who knows what innovative solutions to problems we’ll discover?”

Innovation centers are popping up nationwide, many of which exemplify the notion of forward-thinking by a modern design and futuristic construction. But, according to the university, its planners like the idea of a repurposed 1936 building where the likes of Grant Wood once pursued their own creations.

Other faculty legends who once innovated in the building include printmaker Mauricio Lasansky, painter Philip Guston, Museum of Modern Art Deputy Curator Riva Castleman and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett — the first African American awarded a master of fine arts degree recognized recently in the UI’s naming of its newest residence hall.

But the 53,200-square-foot, four-floor Art Building — which originally cost $200,000 to build — has been vacant since historic flooding in 2008 devastated its basement.

As part of its flood recovery, the university erected Art Building West across Riverside Drive from its defunct counterpart and the Visual Arts Building, just down the road. Once resurrected as a new innovation center, the old Art Building will reclaim its “original grandeur,” according to Steve McGuire, director of the UI School of Art and Art History.

According regents documents made public last week, the building — while empty — has been maintained “in accordance with federal protective requirements.” The proposed renovations would modernize the inside, restore the outside, eliminate deferred maintenance need and make site improvements including updating mechanical, electrical and fire detection technologies.

As for the risk of future flooding, UI officials reported to the board that earthwork, landscape modifications and flood barriers have been added since 2008.

The new center’s primary programming would occur on aboveground floors, which top 2008 and 500-year flood levels.

The design also would incorporate precautionary measures for easy evacuation of the lower level.

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