Education

Painting a portrait of the University of Iowa's presidential past

'We needed to complete the collection'

Portraits of the three most recent University of Iowa leaders — (from left) Sally Mason, Mary Sue Coleman and David Skorton — are shown in this composite. The portraits were unveiled Oct. 17, and now all 20 former presidents are represented in the gallery on the fifth floor of the Main Library. (UI Office of Strategic Communication)
Portraits of the three most recent University of Iowa leaders — (from left) Sally Mason, Mary Sue Coleman and David Skorton — are shown in this composite. The portraits were unveiled Oct. 17, and now all 20 former presidents are represented in the gallery on the fifth floor of the Main Library. (UI Office of Strategic Communication)

IOWA CITY — As hundreds earlier this month filed into the Voxman Music Building for a panel discussion with five past and present University of Iowa presidents, the crowds passed by newly minted portraits of three of the leaders they were about to see — Mary Sue Coleman, David Skorton and Sally Mason.

The portraits, unveiled during homecoming week dedication ceremonies Oct. 17, have been added to a UI presidential portrait gallery on the fifth floor of the UI Main Library — updating the space so that all 20 former presidents now are represented.

The impetus to get the paintings done came after John Culshaw noticed upon becoming UI librarian in 2013 that the collection ended with Hunter Rawlings, who left in 1995 to become president of Cornell University.

That meant the gallery — two and a half decades later — was missing Coleman, who served from 1995 to 2002 before becoming president of University of Michigan and eventually the Association of American Universities; David Skorton, who served from 2003 to 2006 before becoming president of Cornell University and then the Smithsonian Institution; and Sally Mason, who served from 2007 to 2015 before retiring.

Current UI President Bruce Harreld — who also participated in this month’s panel discussion — was hired to replace Mason in 2015, and he recently signed a new five-year contract to remain at the helm through 2023.

Upon realizing the gallery was out of date — and with concerns that would give the appearance the UI Libraries didn’t care — Culshaw began working with the UI Office of the President, the Center for Advancement and President Emeritus Willard “Sandy” Boyd to get the portraits done.

With Coleman, Skorton and Mason agreeing to sit for the portraits — thanks to nudging from Boyd — artists Ellen Cooper, Sergei Chernikov and Rose Frantzen competed the works.

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“I thought we needed to complete the collection because an important part of the Libraries’ mission is to preserve and share the history of the university,” Culshaw said in a statement. “I also thought that we should be proud of the fact that we have two female presidents, whose portraits were missing.”

The portrait collection’s history is somewhat shrouded, with a first reference coming in 1872 in the student newspaper The University Reporter, announcing an effort to create a gallery of the first seven presidents.

Most of the earlier portraits were “gauzy works of presidents in sober, reflective poses,” according to the UI Office of Strategic Communication, with the style changing in the portrait of Virgil Hancher to one more bright and lively.

The portraits shifted locations over the years, landing in their current Main Library home in 1972 following a move from the Old Capitol, according to UI archivist David McCartney.

In addition to the paintings, the university has created an online resource guide — so faculty can use the gallery as a teaching and research tool.

“I hope that they inspire students to think about leadership and how they can succeed in higher education,” Culshaw said in a statement. “I’m hoping they’re more than just history and are a way to engage students.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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