Thesis Rental Gallery Collection: UI student art, through the ages

University of Iowa collection documents decades of student work


In a large room in the University of Iowa’s old art museum — which was largely abandoned after the Floods of 2008 — wire racks that stretch between the floor and ceiling hold riots of color, landscapes and still lifes, images in styles from pop art to abstraction to realism.

This is the UI’s Thesis Rental Gallery, a collection of around 6,000 pieces of art dating back to the 1930s.

“It's pretty unique [..] It’s based on an Italian Renaissance idea from the 1560s to build a student collection.”

- Alice Phillips, curator in the University of Iowa's Office of Visual Materials



That’s when the university started collecting works from every graduate student in the School of Art and Art History. Today, the collection is an 80-year record of the school’s history.

“This was a way of commemorating our graduate students’ achievements while they were at the University of Iowa,” said Alice Phillips, curator in the school’s Office of Visual Materials.

University faculty and staff, as well as certain businesses with close ties to the university, can rent pieces from the collection for display in their offices and buildings.

The paintings were previously stored on the UI’s Oakdale campus, but that space was proving unsuitable, with bugs and climate control issues. The former art museum building, meanwhile, was still largely unused.

“This is a much better space for art,” Phillips said.


So, earlier this year, the department began moving the pieces to the old art museum. In the process, Phillips and gallery assistant Matthew Solinger have been digitizing the collection to make it more accessible to all.

Phillips, who recently took over managing the collection, said she still is getting acquainted with it. Her goal is to be able to recommend works of art to different departments.

Currently, the collection has about 400 pieces of art on loan in almost 50 buildings across campus.

Phillips said she only knows of one other university with a rental collection like this one.

“It’s pretty unique,” she said. “It’s based on an Italian Renaissance idea from the 1560s to build a student collection.”

The art dates to as early at 1939. The school stopped collecting physical new works from students in 2014 as they ran low on space, Phillips said, though digital versions are still archived.

Along with the paintings and prints, shelves hold sculptures. In the building’s basement, larger pieces too big for the shelves sit on pallets.


Phillips and Solinger spent the summer photographing all the paintings and prints in the collection and creating an online version of the gallery, which anyone can peruse.

As they digitize the collection, they’ve also been looking for works that need conservation and repair — things like cracked or warped frames or torn canvases.

The gallery also acts as record of how art movements and influences on students have shifted over the decades. Phillips said you can see when different professors — such as famed Iowa painter Grant Wood — came and went, by looking at what their students produced.

“It shows the range of teaching styles over the last century,” she said. “You can observe how it changes as different professors arrive at the university and bring their own teaching styles, and how graduate students bring their own creativity to the university.”

She hopes the collection can be a teaching and research resource. Solinger said, as he’s helped document the collection, he’s been able to discern historical patterns and enjoys guessing when each piece was created based on those patterns.

“It’s nice to just see the different art and different styles,” Solinger said. “I like playing the, ‘When did this come from?’ game.”

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View the Art


• What: Thesis Rental Gallery

• Where: Old Museum of Art, 150 N. Riverside Dr., Iowa City

• Who: University of Iowa faculty and staff and some businesses with close university ties, can rent art for an annual $65 rental fee. Gallery available to view by appointment in person or anytime online.

• Details: (319) 335-1787 or email

• Online gallery: