Forty Years of Art and Beyond - Post-flood, UI Museum of Art moves forward

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As unrelenting river waters steadily approached the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA) on Monday, June 9, 2008, it became clear—the art was in jeopardy.

After consulting with the University’s fine arts insurance company, Lloyds of London, Kathryn Kurth, assistant director of UI risk management, ordered the immediate evacuation of the 12,000-piece UIMA collection.

While hundreds of sandbaggers worked outside the building to protect the museum, inside, the museum’s collections manager, Jeff Martin, coordinated teams of employees, museum members, graduate art students, and other volunteers to pack the $500 million worth of art. After returning early from a trip to Ireland, Pamela White, the museum’s interim director, watched nervously as movers placed the two most valuable works in the collection, Jackson Pollock’s Mural and Max Beckmann’s Karneval, into separate climate-controlled trucks.

Other major paintings were loaded onto a third vehicle and the pieces headed to a secure storage facility in Chicago with haste—before the flooding of the nearby Cedar River shut down interstate travel to the east. The museum’s chief curator, Kathy Edwards, drove 7,000 works on paper in a University van up the hill to safety in the Old Capitol Museum.

“We were working 12-hour days and several of us stayed all night that Thursday,” Martin says. “At 3 a.m., I tried to take a nap. The whole week was surreal.”

On Friday, June 13, Martin watched as water began to stream under the sandbags into the lower galleries. The museum building closed its doors for the final time, never to house art again.

This wasn’t the way anyone expected to kick off the museum’s 40th anniversary celebration. But despite everything, the UIMA did not sink that summer. Forced to start from scratch, the museum’s staff and its supporters drew upon the spirit the museum has embodied throughout its history.

The UIMA’s founding 40 years ago was another response to a challenge. In 1962, Cedar Rapids art collectors Owen and Leone Elliott promised to give the University their immense art collection, but only if it built an art museum. Back then, many deemed it impossible to raise the necessary $1.2 million. But, according to the UIMA’s 40th anniversary book, Building a Masterpiece: Legacy of The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowans took up the cause of the UI Foundation’s first capital campaign.

Professors, doctors, businesses, farmers, teachers, and even schoolchildren from across the state gave what they could to make sure the museum opened its doors. On May 5, 1969, the University christened the new home for its art.

Today, the museum continues to reach people, even without walls. Within months of the flood, UIMA staff members were already finding temporary venues and bringing the art back to Iowa.

“As soon as we knew the art was safe we became focused on bringing art back on campus to resume our educational purpose, the primary mission of the museum,” White says.

Just four months after the flood, more than 250 works on paper became accessible to classes at the UI Libraries’ Special Collections. In the spring of 2009, the permanent collection returned to Iowa for temporary safekeeping and display at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, fifty miles east of Iowa City. More art returned to campus in fall 2009 when the museum opened the UIMA@IMU, a visual classroom within the Iowa Memorial Union (IMU) that houses over 500 objects.

UIMA exhibitions are also resuming in full force: four open this semester alone. In Iowa, the Figge and the IMU’s renovated Black Box Theatre provide exhibition space. Pieces from the collection also will travel to New York City in April, opening Lil Picard and Counterculture New York at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. The exhibition is the first American museum retrospective of artist and critic Lil Picard, a pioneering feminist artist whose estate was gifted to the University in 1999.

“In spite of great hardship, we are determined to bring new exhibitions and scholarship to our public,” White says. “Doing the Picard exhibition is nothing short of miraculous. We’ve always had this history of doing major traveling shows in addition to showing our collection, and we will keep doing that.”

Museum supporters are greatly responsible for the progress made. They include UI President Sally Mason, who has made it clear that the University is committed to constructing a new museum building. In February, Mason received recommendations from the Envisioning Committee, formed in August 2009 to research ideas for the new museum building.

Committee member Joyce Summerwill says she is inspired by the success of the original founding campaign and believes that same spirit exists today. She notes the success of the UIMA’s annual fundraiser, “The Museum pARTy!,” as an example—more than 200 people raised more than $154,000 for the 2010 exhibitions and programs.

“There is an audience out there that agrees that an art museum makes our life much richer,” Summerwill says. “I have great hope. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be accomplished.”

Claire Lekwa

Book Cover photo: Building a Masterpiece: Legacy of the University of Iowa Museum of Art by Abigail Forestner

Illustrated with works from the permanent collection, the story of the UIMA’s founding and its 40-year history is told in Building a Masterpiece: Legacy of The University of Iowa Museum of Art by Abigail Forestner. The book is available for $10 online at For more information on the UIMA, visit

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© The University of Iowa 2009