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University of Iowa rings in new year with opening of $50 million Stanley Museum of Art

Exclusive video of the Stanley Museum of Art before its August 26 unveiling.

Fourteen years ago, flooding along the Iowa River scattered the University of Iowa's fine art collection. This week, Iowans can revisit old favorites and new acquisitions in the new Stanley Museum of Art's first exhibition: "Homecoming."

Vigorous green hues eddy against a white canvas: some are dark with pigment, others thinned with linseed oil or turpentine. The name, "Portrait of Green" (1969), is a provocation since seeing someone’s likeness in it is akin to seeing a face in the clouds.

Standing in front of the canvas, Kathryn Reuter said each mark suggests the hand that made it. The artist Lee Krasner was a pioneering voice in the American Abstract Expressionist scene. A photographer documented the process of Krasner's "Portrait." Energetic brush strokes, athletic strikes against the canvas: even without the photograph, you can see Krasner.

"I imagine the creation of this piece when I see it," Reuter said.

Reuter is an academic outreach coordinator for the University of Iowa's new Stanley Museum of Art. She leads class visits, using the collection to teach art movements like abstract expressionism. While the Jackson Pollock hanging nearby is a big name, Reuter argues the collection’s strength is in representing the field’s lesser-known but important artists, women like Krasner.

"She's a key figure in this movement, but historically hasn't been as well known as names like Jackson Pollock," she said.

Stanley Museum_Portrait in Green.jpg
Zachary Oren Smith
Lee Krasner's "Portrait in Green" (1967) hangs in the Stanley Art Museum's brand new halls.

A new museum
Fourteen years after a flooding Iowa River scattered its collection, the University of Iowa's Stanley Museum of Art is bringing its nearly 18,000 objects under one roof.

"The title of the exhibition 'Homecoming' really conveys the big point, which is that we're bringing the collection home to Iowa City and to campus after fourteen years of being stored and exhibited remotely," said museum director Lauren Lessing.

It takes its name from Dick and Mary Jo Stanley. In 2017, the Muscatine couple committed $10 million to the cause. Designed by architect BNIM Iowa, the $50 million building at 160 W. Burlington St. has 63,000 square feet with space for exhibition in and outside.

Stanley Museum_mug.jpg
Zachary Oren Smith
The Stanley Art Museum houses the collection's nearly 18,000 objects. The museum is free to the public and opens Friday.

The inaugural exhibition will display 600 works by 500 artists. The range will include works from its collection of Abstract Exprssionism, African art, works on paper, textiles and ceramics.

Lessing said many museums at the moment are working to build the diversity of art represented in their collection. With works like Sam Gilliam's "Red April" and Alma Thomas' "Spring Embraces Yellow," she said the Stanley's collection stands out.

"We could never afford to buy work by these artists now," Lessing said. "Crystal Bridges Art Museum can afford to buy them. The Met can afford to buy them. But college art museums can't. ... I'm standing on the shoulders of a lot curators and directors who were forward-thinking enough to recognize the importance of these artists early on."
'What if I've never been to an art museum before?'
The Stanley's leadership say they want this museum to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

"Most visitors who come to art museums don't come for our history lessons, they come to have experiences and conversations," Lessing said.

IPR asked Lessing — who's worked in museums most of her career — how she'd recommend someone new to art approach a visit. She said "knowing something" about art doesn't matter as much as people think. It's really about finding what you like and what you don't like, what excites you and what doesn't.

Stanley Museum_detail.jpg
Zachary Oren Smith
The University of Iowa's The Stanley Museum of Art, 160 W Burlington St., was designed by BNIM Iowa's project lead Rod Kruse.

"I would want them to really have faith in their own judgment. Recognize that some things they see, they're going to like. Other things that they see, they won't like. And those are valid determinations whether they studied art in the past or have never studied art," she said.

She offered a checklist:

  • Look for something that looks familiar.
  • Look for something that surprises you.
  • Look for something you have questions about.
  • And return and see how that changes over time.

"We want people to be delighted by some things, put off by other things in a way that raises questions," Lessing said. "And we want to spark curiosity. I mean, I want people to leave with more questions than they came in with."
The Stanley Museum is a financial supporter of Iowa Public Radio.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa