an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Sorry Sights: University of Iowa&#146s Flooded Museum and Steven Holl Art Building

The ghosts of letters removed this week from the façade of the University of Iowa Museum of Art

Pamela White, interim director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art and director of the university’s museum studies program, had planned an upbeat trip for my stay in Iowa City, where recovery from last June’s damaging flood may cost the university some $750 million, partially reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In December, according to White, FEMA had indicated it might contribute to the cost of a new art facility, but in January the federal agency changed its mind, on the (waterlogged) grounds that the existing building is still structurally sound and does not need to be replaced.

Pam strongly opposes returning the art collection to a site subject to the vagaries of the Iowa River. She believes that a new art facility will (perhaps in the distant future, depending on funds and university priorities) need to be constructed, out of harm’s way. In the meantime, temporary exhibition facilities are being readied elsewhere on campus and parts of the museum’s building are being used as temporary space for the displaced School of Music.

My attentive host (full disclosure: I was compensated for my campus speaking engagement) took me on a driving tour of campus and scheduled me to visit the university’s two still-functioning museums (Natural History, Old Capitol Building), as well as the new installation at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport, of highlights from the university’s art collection. (It’s not just about the Pollock!)

But towards the end of my last full day in Iowa, I realized I was missing something—a firsthand look at what the flood had done to the museum and to the most architecturally arresting building that I caught sight of during our quick driving tour upon my arrival—the Steven Holl-designed Art Building West, opened in 2006 and closed by floodwaters a mere two years later. It housed classrooms, studios, the art library, gallery space, offices and an auditorium.

Melissa Hueting, Pam’s assistant, helped me fill in my university tour, during the morning hours prior to my flight home.

Pam had told me that the university had originally wanted to locate Holl’s building farther from the river, but the architect had fallen in love with the picturesque site by the pond, To the building’s later detriment, he got his way:


Here’s museum intern Claire Lekwa, demonstrating how far the floodwaters rose up the side of the building last June:

That light-colored horizontal line above her 5’5″ head shows the highwater mark, clearly visible on Corten steel.

I couldn’t get inside this building (although I did, as you’ll see in a subsequent post, enter the former art museum). Only staffers can now get inside the Holl, fetching books requested from the shelves of the cantilevered art library, perched high above water level:


Here’s a broad shot of the building (on the side facing away from the cantilever), now largely reduced to an abandoned hulk:


Along this side are panels of frosted glass, which for me called to mind the celebrated Holl facility that would open a year later—the 2007 Bloch Building of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, which I had visited just days earlier. Here’s the glass wall of its Iowa precursor:


Here’s the more alluring side, facing the pond (image from Steven Holl’s website):


Here (again from Holl’s website) is what the interior looked like, pre-flood. You can see the intricate, angled intersections of planes, as in the Bloch Building:


Repair and restoration of the Holl building were deemed eligible for FEMA funds; its hoped-for reopening, according to a university press release, is next December.

The museum’s future is much more nebulous. A public meeting on that subject, held last Saturday with President Sally Mason and other university officials, resulted in an airing of problems, with no evident solution.

Terry McCoy of the Iowa City Gazette quotes Mason:

I wish I was here to tell you that we would be breaking ground on the
new art museum immediately, but unfortunately, I can’t tell you that….We’re not exactly flush with cash. So that leaves us with some hard thinking to do in the short and long term.

The newly appointed “Museum Visioning Committee” has its work cut out for it. McCoy (no relation, I hope, to this McCoy) reports that “if the UI is to open another art museum, the fundraising must be done internally.” So guess what one Gazette reader suggested, in a comment appended to McCoy’s article:

Sell the Pollock.

To silence what is otherwise bound to be a constant refrain, deaccession legislation is urgently needed.

COMING SOON: My walk through the sadly abandoned art museum and, on a lighter note, my trip to the Figge.

an ArtsJournal blog