Democratizing art, O’Harrow wants to connect the UIMA and Iowans everywhere

At first blush, 2010 might seem an awkward time to become director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA). The flood of 2008 had rendered the museum’s building unfit for an art collection, more than 12,000 pieces were in storage or scattered across alternative venues, and state officials had suggested selling off some works, most notably Jackson Pollock’s massive painting Mural.

But for Sean O’Harrow, the timing was perfect. He seized the moment as a unique opportunity to help set directions for one of the country’s leading university art museums.

O’Harrow previously served as executive director of the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, which has exhibited pieces from the flood-displaced UI collection, as well as shows from University faculty and students. He’s also worked as a fellow and development director for St. Catharine’s College at the University of Cambridge (where he received a doctorate in art history) and as an executive for banking, financial consulting, and software firms based in London.

O’Harrow spoke with Spectator about the unique strengths of the UIMA collection, the role of a university-based art museum, and connecting art with audiences statewide.

You lived in London and Paris, two of the world's great cities. What brought you to Davenport and then to Iowa City? 

My father's family has lived in the Midwest for almost 190 years, and I've been visiting relatives in the region all my life. So, when I was given the chance to run the museum in Davenport, I thought it was a wonderful opportunity.

Iowa, like much of the Midwest, is a place where education—the primary mission of a museum—is a big deal. There's a receptive audience for what museums have to offer, particularly in Iowa City. Also, it's an exciting period in the development of the UIMA. That's an opportunity most museum directors aren't normally given. 

Some people would say, "We don't even have a building here—what would attract you?"

That's the funny thing. Many people assume the most important element of an art museum is its building. In fact, the art is what attracts people to museums, what gives museums credibility, and what enables museums to teach people. It should be all about substance and what's in the box, not about the trappings.

Part of the reason Jackson Pollock's painting Mural is so central to our museum's mission is that it's genuinely significant work of art. We will have a building one day—soon, I hope—but I was primarily attracted to this post because the UIMA's art collection is among the best in the world. 

I take it you're not in favor of selling the Pollock? 

We can't sell it, because it is the genesis of our collection. Peggy Guggenheim, the great gallery owner, gave this work to the University, in good faith, to show students what is probably the most important painting in modern American art. I could never support betraying that trust.

Mural represents the beginning of the American century in art. The Pollock is why we're on the map—it's the most famous painting in the state. The minute it were sold, we would no longer be on the map. Worse yet, our reputation, particularly with donors, would be ruined forever. I think Iowa's good reputation is of paramount importance.

How do you rate the UIMA collection? 

I think this collection is easily in the nation's top dozen, particularly for 20th century western art, and definitely in the top couple for African art. The pre-Columbian and western print collections are also very good.

That level of quality creates opportunities beyond the museum. If we promote our cultural strengths and our capacity for education and research, we'll attract people who are going to bring new resources, networks, and opportunities to Iowa. The art museum helps promote the University, the city, and the state beyond our borders. 

Can you elaborate on what you mean?

I want to approach the art museum from the point of view of an artistic Silicon Valley. I've worked at both Harvard and Cambridge universities, and their cities are known for being hubs of scientific activity, particularly in technology. As I've studied what makes these areas tick, I've realized that a university and a community can have the same impact in areas beyond technology.

Iowa City is rich in culture and the arts, and has a strong reputation we can build upon. For example, the School of Art and Art History is one of the largest entities within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with world-renowned faculty members and talented students producing superb work. There's no reason we can't use the museum and its partners to form a network that not only develops and retains people, but also attracts new people.

We need a system that helps faculty, students, graduates, alumni, and community members pursue their artistic and academic endeavors. Otherwise, we'll continue to export our talented graduates and creative population out of the state, which is a common complaint I've heard here in Iowa.

Will you take the collection around the state?

The fact that we're without a building gives us an opportunity to explore exactly that. We have a logistical challenge with the way our population is spread out, but we shouldn't use that as an excuse.

I'd like to work with other museums on a physical delivery network that will allow collections in participating museums to be better viewed by Iowans and visitors. We can experiment and look at all sorts of approaches that we would never have explored otherwise.

You do want to build new facility and to bring the collection back to Iowa City? 

Oh gosh yes! The University community is our main audience, and we can't easily serve them without local facilities for our art collection. Having said that, I don't think we need to wait for a new building in order to bring back many parts of the collection. There are a lot of places we can convert into museum space, and we should explore new venues while we have the chance.

I'll give you one example: the superb artwork in UI Hospitals and Clinics. I think that's a better art museum than almost any I've encountered. The hospital introduces art to audiences who may never have thought about art. It's an effective approach that demystifies and democratizes art, which is my goal too.

Are you confident you can raise funds for a new building? 

I am sure we will raise the money to build a fabulous museum again, but we'll do it in an intelligent and thoughtful way. I'm a great proponent of modern architecture, but I believe architecture needs to be useful as well as beautiful. Its ultimate beauty is based in this intersection between utility and aesthetics. The great architect will be the one who can merge those two and not compromise either.

We should develop a facility that is appropriate for the next several decades. The current tight financial environment might actually help us produce that sort of building. 

Beyond a new building, what's your long-term goal? 

I plan to make the new UIMA a model museum for the new century. I'd like to develop a new "Iowa Idea." The first Iowa Idea was established almost a century ago by the art faculty here at the University. It revolutionized art training by introducing professional artists as professors, a model copied by new university programs around the world.

My plan is to create a university museum for the 21st century, one that other institutions will want to emulate. As an integral part of the University, it is our duty to develop new models for teaching, and the new museum should be in line with that objective.

There is a lot of goodwill towards the UIMA and its goals, so I'm confident that we have the support needed to create a wonderful new institution for the new millennium.

Steve Parrott
photo by Tom Jorgensen

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© The University of Iowa 2009