IOWA CITY — Some 70 to 80 years ago — in the days of Nile Kinnick, Tennessee Williams and Virgil Hancher — the University of Iowa’s School of Art and Art History began hosting exhibitions and collecting contemporary works, including Max Beckmann’s “Karneval” and the swirling abstraction that is Jackson Pollock’s “Mural.”
The UI opened its first Museum of Art in 1969, expanded it in 1976 and for decades featured and grew its collections until torrential flooding devastated the campus and its exhibition space in 2008.
Staffers and volunteers managed to save most of the artwork — although hundreds of pieces and objects needed treatment in the aftermath. But administrators determined the swamped building couldn’t again house the campus’ famed collections, and they began angling for a safer space.
Unlike other flood damaged UI buildings, however, the old museum — deemed viable for other purposes — didn’t qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds. So while the fragmented UI collection jumped from traveling exhibits to temporary housing in the Iowa Memorial Union or the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, administrators initiated creative pursuits to finance a new museum.
The path forward wasn’t immediately clear. And it has curved along the way — like in 2015, after the UI entered a public-private partnership to construct a new museum on leased property near downtown.
UI’s then-new President Bruce Harreld scrapped the plan and charged his team to come up with a less-expensive option. It did, and in early 2016 the university pitched construction on a UI-owned plot near the Main Library, an idea that quickly won Board of Regents approval.
Aiming to finance half the $50 million effort with private donations, the UI received a big boost in 2017 with a $10 million gift from Dick and Mary Jo Stanley — earning the couple naming rights for the new Stanley Museum of Art.
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The 60,000-square-foot, three-story project celebrated a ceremonial groundbreaking in summer 2019, starting construction that fall with plans to finish in 2022.
Should the museum materialize on time, the achievement will be a long time coming after years of changing costs, locations, construction plans and schedules.
When the Stanley gift was announced, the university had planned to begin construction in 2018 and finish by 2020. Before that, in 2016, the project had been planned to wrap up by 2019 — in time to mark the UI Museum of Art’s 50th anniversary.
But now that debate over the site, size, scope, schedule, cost and funding has subsided, even a historic pandemic hasn’t slowed progress, said UI Art Museum Director Lauren Lessing.
“The construction has gone smoothly, and there have been no significant delays due to COVID,” she told The Gazette. “The building is scheduled to be completed in December 2021, after which it will need to be conditioned, giving construction materials time to off-gas for several months and letting the HVAC system flush the interior before the collection is moved in.”
Because of those special needs, the museum remains slated for public opening in fall 2022.
A webcam documenting live progress on the re-imagined art home overlooking the Iowa River — although sitting outside the 500-year flood plain by 4 feet — shows a buzzing hive of activity.
A recent UI building update reported much of the work is happening inside the now-enclosed building shell — with workers as of December installing 6,500 linear feet of ductwork weighing 70,000 pounds. On tap is installation of drywall and plywood for second-floor galleries.
“The project has passed the 60 percent completion mark,” according to the UI update, noting the finished product will boast 16,500 square feet of exhibition space and 2,200 square feet of outdoor gallery space.
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The building will accommodate all the UI art collection — allowing a sort of homecoming after so many nomadic years. Among the long-awaited returns to campus is Pollock’s “Mural” — which has attracted hundreds of thousands of eyes internationally over its years away from UI.
“It will be on display in one of the second-floor galleries,” an update on the Pollock’s future in Iowa City says.
In the interim, though, collections will remain in their temporary locations — with “Mural” currently at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. And — given COVID-19 — the UI has created several online programs aimed at sustaining connection with a wide range of audiences.
“Many of these … will continue in the new building,” Lessing said, elaborating on “one example of a successful online pivot.”
The UI’s art education program for seniors, Connected for Life, was among a small percentage of applicants to receive a federal CARES Act grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to recreate and expand the program online.
“We are particularly proud that we are able to continue serving this important audience that has been so affected by COVID-19,” Lessing said.
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