Higher education

New University of Iowa art museum near the river in latest plans

UI officials say elevation will protect it from flooding

Gibson Square, at the corner of S. Madison Street and Burlington Street is a proposed location for the new University of Iowa Art Museum. Shot on Monday, April 4, 2016. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
The Gazette
Gibson Square, at the corner of S. Madison Street and Burlington Street is a proposed location for the new University of Iowa Art Museum. Shot on Monday, April 4, 2016. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY -- Less than a month after rising costs prompted University of Iowa officials to abandon plans to build a new art museum on private land, the institution has proposed a new on-campus site for the replacement museum near the same Iowa River that devastated the old one.

At an event Saturday and then in a letter to supporters Sunday, UI Art Museum Director Sean O’Harrow said officials now plan to erect a new museum next to Gibson Square Park — near the university’s Main Library at the intersection of Burlington and South Madison streets.

The plan, according to O’Harrow’s letter, is to connect the museum to the library’s southern section.

“We couldn’t be more pleased,” he wrote.

The letter addresses the issue of potential flooding — as the proposed site was among the many that took on water during the 2008 flood that caused $717 million in damage on campus. Specifically, according to O’Harrow’s letter, parking planned below the new museum will elevate the building above the flood zone, like the Figge Art Museum in Davenport that was floodproofed in a similar fashion.

And, even though water from the Iowa River reached the UI Main Library’s steps in 2008, experts say the campus has undertaken significant mitigation across campus.

“Since then, the university has made major improvements in its infrastructure,” said Witold Krajewski, director of the Iowa Flood Center. “I am positive that the potential of flooding still is on the minds of these people.”

Krajewski said numerous factors exacerbated circumstances in 2008, including a temporary dam that had been installed for unrelated facilities work.

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“The situation is probably sufficiently changed from then,” he said. “But, having said that, Mother Nature often throws a curve ball.”

UI officials on Monday didn’t answer questions about the size of the proposed site, where exactly the museum would sit, whether it would cut into the park’s green space, or if it require trees to come down.

UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett said officials are continuing to assess the site, and they will submit an entire plan to the Board of Regents for approval when the review is complete.

“Upon (Board of Regents) endorsement of the new direction, the UI will engage in more detailed study of the site and building needs,” Bassett said in an email. “There is no specific timeline for completion of the project on this site.”

In O’Harrow’s letter to donors on Sunday, he highlighted other possible benefits of the proposed site.

It holds potential for enhanced partnerships with new neighbors — including the UI Main Library and its units, like special collections and conservation, and the UI College of Education, which sits across Madison Street to the east.

It will gain access — via proximity — to additional event spaces and visitor services, like a cafe and auditorium in the library.

Its on-campus locale could increase visits among students, faculty, staff, community members, and campus guests.

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The site offers “safe and easy access” for all visitors, including school buses. The larger site leaves open the possibility for future expansion and parking additions.

And plans include a proposal to install a “sculpture park” in front of the museum on Gibson Square, according to the letter.

The university had to get creative with its art museum renovation-replacement plans after the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied funds for a new facility away from the river — even though the old one was deemed uninsurable for art going forward.

It’s planning to use the old site along Riverside Drive, which was not a total loss, to house museum offices and living-artist presentations. Museum staff, in fact, are moving into that renovated space in the next month.

The university in 2014 entered into a public-private partnership to build a new museum for its more than 15,000-piece collection on the southeast corner of Clinton and Burlington streets. For design, engineering, site development, and construction, UI officials estimated the cost at about $80 million.

Under that now-abandoned collaboration, the university would have leased the about 75,000-square-foot building and the land from the developers. With the lease and buyout proposal, officials had estimated the total project value at $107 million, and President Bruce Harreld had qualms.

He recently said, “It seemed like it was a huge investment, huge investment, in another part of the community — and not an integral part of the campus.”

UI officials came forward with a new on-campus site proposal in response to Harreld’s question about whether the institution already owns land it could use.

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Although officials say it’s too soon to report projected costs of a new art museum near the Main Library, UI Business Manager David Kieft has said using UI land for a project of similar scale and type to the one proposed for the public site could save about $30 million.

Although UI officials have not disclosed a timeline for construction at the new site, Harreld has said he expects completion is four to five years away. In the meantime, Harreld said, the university will return most of its art to campus using temporary spaces — like those currently displaying some of the UI collection at the Iowa Memorial Union.

Harreld has said he wants to return campus access to the collection within 12 to 18 months.

And even though most of the university’s art has been displaced for eight years, it has managed to achieve record-breaking visit totals year after year through traveling exhibitions, statewide programming, and artwork loans.

And at a museum fundraising event over the weekend — where much of this news was presented — donors gave a record high of about $80,000, according to O’Harrow’s letter.

“And I am sure this number will rise when everything is in,” he said.

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