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Sorriest Sight: Inside Iowa’s Flooded, Evacuated Museum

WARNING: This post includes graphic content that will cause emotional distress to anyone who cares about art museums (i.e., all of you).

When I visited the former home of the University of Iowa Museum of Art in Iowa City earlier this month, the lettering announcing its past purpose had not yet been removed from its façade (as it has been now):


This 1969 building, emptied and evacuated due to last June’s Iowa River flood (and now housing some music rehearsal rooms), had been designed by the firm of Harrison and Abramovitz, whose partners were: Wallace Harrison, Nelson Rockefeller‘s favorite architect, who designed Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House and the Empire State Plaza (the state government complex in Albany, NY); and Max Abramovitz, best known as the architect for Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) in New York’s Lincoln Center.

You can see how close the river is, through the window of the desolate ex-museum:


The darkened area of the wall in the sunken sculpture court (below the level of the top of the staircase) shows how far the water rose:


But more harrowing was the invasion of floodwater in the art storage area. As luck would have it, that influx stopped just below the lower edge of the racks where paintings were hung. Here’s Steve Erickson, the museum’s preparator, indicating the bottom of those racks, a bit below knee height:


Steve told me there was scant damage to artworks: About six pieces of sculpture had touched water but were reparable and “some prints got a little cockled from the humidity.”

When it was clear that the river would overflow its banks, Erickson and other museum
staffers labored mightily to get out whatever objects they could before they were
ordered to leave the premises. (Melissa Hueting, assistant to the museum’s director and my guide last week through the abandoned museum, had to evacuate her own home, as well.)

Ceramics, less vulnerable to moisture, remained temporarily within the building, but were placed on higher shelves:


Eventually, everything was shipped to storage in Chicago. Now it’s gradually being transferred to the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, IA, which will display some on a rotating basis and store the rest. (The first exhibition has just opened.) Erickson told me that about two-thirds of the university’s works are still in Chicago; it will take several months to move everything to the Figge.

Here are university museum’s exhibition labels, still on the wall, but curling due to the moisture that pervaded the building. They are the sorry remnants of the aborted exhibition, The Power of Line: European and American Etching Revival Prints from the Lee Collection:


Here, in happier days, is that same wall, while the final prints exhibition was being admired by visitors. (The 300-item collection of J. Thomas and Debra Gabrielson Lee had been given to the museum in 2006.):


These now-empty cases for ceramics had been created and installed just two years ago:


And saddest of all, here is where the celebrated Pollock once hung:


That teeshirt I’m wearing is part of the museum’s flood-recovery campaign. It bears a picture of Iowa’s Pollock in a lifeboat (and has become my favorite exercise top!):


If you crave it too, the museum’s home page (scroll down) tells you how to acquire it for $15. Proceeds will be applied towards finding “innovative ways to make the museum’s collection visible to the community during the UIMA’s displacement resulting from
the summer flooding.”

[Full disclosure: I was compensated by the University of Iowa for my recent lecture on deaccessioning. Speaking of compensation, many thanks to CultureGrrl Donors 34, 35, 36 and 37, from Princeton, NJ, and Arlington, VA, Washington, DC, and Denver, CO.]

COMING SOON: On a happier note, images from the Figge Museum’s first show drawn from the University of Iowa’s rescued collection.

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