In the summer of 2008, one of the worst floods in decades hit eastern Iowa. Over six million sandbags were filled as the Mississippi, Cedar, and Iowa rivers overflowed their banks in the state, causing hundreds of evacuations. The flood also did $743 million in damage to the University of Iowa campus, including the University of Iowa Museum of Art. As the waters rose, the insurance company Lloyd’s of London evacuated Jackson Pollock’s 1943 painting “Mural,” which was a significant draw for the museum. Librarians in the library worked to evacuate thousands of books, and curators and locals worked to get collections such as the Stanley Collection of African Art to safety. Nearby, in Cedar Rapids, the African American Museum of Iowa and the National Czech & Slovak Museum were also flooded.
Fourteen years after the epic disaster, the campus is now largely recovered and a new museum, the Stanley Museum of Art, has opened to the public. But it is no longer the Pollock that forms the focus of the collection. New leaders, a new building, and a new vision now center the African Art collection and particularly the work of Black artists in the Midwest, such as Iowa alumna Elizabeth Catlett.
Rebuilding the museum space and then rearranging the presentation of the collection has taken years of planning and fundraising. As “Mural” toured Europe and the United States at various art museums across the globe, the University of Iowa sought to move the museum to the other side of the Iowa river, rather than rebuild the old one. They also worked to bring on new guidance. In 2018, Lauren Lessing was named the director of the renewed museum. Lessing worked alongside then-chief curator Joyce Tsai — now the director of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver — and a host of other curators, art historians, digital librarians, and advisors to diversify and digitize the collection. Teams of curators added new physical labels for pieces in English and in Spanish, redid the digital catalogue so that professors or art historians could view works online through the Iowa Digital Library, and acquired new pieces that better underscored the work of Iowa artists and alumni.
The space is designed for new views and reflections. Rather than facing Pollock’s “Mural” or Grant Wood’s “Plaid Sweater” (1931) directly upon exiting the elevator into the main gallery space, viewers are met with a recent sculptural acquisition made by Catlett. Born and raised in Washington, DC, Catlett was one of the first students to receive a Masters in Fine Arts from the University in 1940. She is also said to be the first Black American to receive an MFA, studying with artists like Grant Wood and Henry Stinson. The museum was highly motivated to acquire “Glory” in 2022 to complement a number of other works by Catlett. The message is clear: There are more Iowa artists than just Grant Wood.
The inaugural exhibition is titled Homecoming. Its name embodies a lot more than just the physical rebuilding that followed the flood. Homecoming presents a recasting and contemporizing of the museum collection. In the process, it also recognizes a number of Black collectors and artists overlooked in the past. Within the exhibition, there are three sub-installations: “History Is Always Now,” which presents a portion of the Stanley’s large African art collection along with “Fragments of the Canon,” both curated by Cory Gundlach. Visiting Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Diana Tuite curated “Generations,” which recounts the long history of the University of Iowa’s arts and writer’s programs such as the MFA program and the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Highlighting the African art collection is a fundamental focus of the new galleries. Cory Gundlach, the Stanley’s African art curator, curated two thematic installations: Centering on Cloth: The Art of African Textiles and About Face: African Masks in Iowa. Gundlach also worked with African cultural heritage specialist Boureima Diamitani on foregrounding the African ceramics in the collection. The “Fragments of the Canon” sub-exhibition also underscores the contributions of Meredith Saunders, a Black ophthalmologist and art collector who donated important pieces of African art to the university’s collection. His collection and his efforts to build knowledge of African art in Iowa were largely unrecognized by the university until now.
In the coming months and years, a number of publications and new exhibitions will continue the museum’s new mission. Derek Nnuro, the museum’s curator of special projects, is currently editing the book that will be titled In a Time of Witness, and that will accompany the inaugural exhibition. Alumni of the Iowa Writers workshops are contributing to the volume, with 11 poems from Iowa poets and writers including Rita Dove and Carmen Maria Machado. In remarks to Hyperallergic, Nnuro noted that in the exhibition space and in its publications, the Stanley wants to provide a forum for listening to voices not always heard in museum spaces.
A number of guest curators have been invited to contribute to the museum. “Guest curator shows are baked into the mission of the museum,” Nnuro notes, “and while we will be highlighting a number of projects and artists focused on the Black Midwest, we are also incorporating more indigenous artists and curators too.” One of these projects is in tandem with the Terra Foundation for American Art, for an exhibition in the fall of 2023. Working alongside Indigenous historian and guest curator Jacki Thompson Rand, this show will highlight the Native Midwest. An exhibition on the Black Midwest will also open in the fall of 2024.
Although many visitors may still initially come to see displayed works by famed American artists such as Pollock, Wood, or Andy Warhol, they will also be presented with the rich history of Black, Indigenous, and queer artists, writers, and photographers underscored in this new space. In rebuilding after the flood, there was the opportunity to provide a different, more diverse narrative. The new Stanley demonstrates that from Catlett to Dove, Iowa and her artists have always been more than just corn fields, butter cows, and bald farmers holding pitchforks.
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Editor’s note, 09/06/22: The name of the curator for Fragments of the Canon exhibition was added to the article.
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