The portrait gallery of University of Iowa presidents is finally up to date.
Portraits of the three most recent UI leaders—Mary Sue Coleman, David Skorton, and Sally Mason—were unveiled during dedication ceremonies on Oct. 17, so that all 20 former presidents are now represented in the gallery on the fifth floor of the Main Library.
John Culshaw, Jack B. King University Librarian at Iowa, noticed when he took over his position in 2013 that the collection ended with Hunter Rawlings, who left Iowa to become president of Cornell University in 1995. Missing from the collection were Coleman, Skorton, and, eventually, Mason, who retired in 2015.
Culshaw says he worried the absence of the recent presidents could give the inaccurate impression that the university or UI Libraries didn’t care.
“I noticed we had this gallery of presidential portraits that just stopped,” Culshaw says. “I thought we needed to complete the collection because an important part of the Libraries’ mission is to preserve and share the history of the university. I also thought that we should be proud of the fact that we have two female presidents, whose portraits were missing.”
Culshaw started working not long afterwards with the Office of the President, the Center for Advancement, and President Emeritus Willard “Sandy” Boyd, to bring the gallery up to date. Coleman, Skorton, and Mason agreed to sit for portraits after some nudging by Boyd. Artists Ellen Cooper; Sergei Chernikov; and Maquoketa, Iowa, resident Rose Frantzen were commissioned to complete the works.
The history of Iowa’s presidential portrait collection has been something of a mystery, and few documents are available to fill in the gaps, says David McCartney, university archivist. The first known reference is in the June 1872 issue of The University Reporter, the student newspaper at the time. It announced that an effort was being made to create a gallery of the first seven presidents and that the university already had portraits of Oliver Spencer, the third president, and George Thacher, the seventh. The Reporter noted that Thacher’s portrait had been painted by an Iowa artist, “Mr. Henderson of Davenport,” and that the portrait of James Black, the fifth president, “should speedily be added.”
McCartney says the portraits were displayed at various parts of campus over time, sometimes together, sometimes in smaller groups or individually. The Iowa Memorial Union, President’s Residence, and Museum of Art were among the locations that once housed some or all of the portraits. They took up residence in their current Main Library gallery in 1972, moving from Old Capitol. Restoration and preservation were completed before the move, including a repair to third president Spencer’s portrait, which someone put a fist through, according to an Oct. 8, 1972, story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
The portraits are accompanied by plaques with short biographies of each president, describing their tenures, which Boyd says are just as important from a historical perspective because they put into context the issues each president faced. A former law professor, Boyd remembers the portrait gallery in the College of Law that features prominent law faculty and past deans that lacked any similar labels for many years, so he wrote some himself.
McCartney wrote the text that accompanies the new portraits as well as an introduction panel, with design help from Kalmia Strong in the School of Library and Information Science.
From a stylistic standpoint, most of the early portraits are traditional, gauzy works of presidents in sober, reflective poses befitting their position. But that changed with a portrait of Virgil Hancher so bright and lively that he looks like he’s going to reach out of the frame and shake your hand. McCartney says Hancher’s portrait, added after his retirement in 1964, ushered in a series of paintings more colorful, more dynamic, and often more abstract than the earlier works. In some cases, much more abstract. For instance, the portrait of Howard Bowen features skewed glasses and shadowing that looks like he has a black eye. Bowen was painted by James Lechay, a member of the UI art faculty at the time and a self-styled abstract impressionist whose work is now included in prominent collections at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian Institute’s American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. State Department.
Culshaw says that while he’s pleased to bring the gallery up to date, he hopes it will be more than just a collection of paintings on a wall. He says he wants the portraits to engage students, and librarians are working with faculty members to develop ways of integrating the artwork into their classroom studies. An online resource guide for faculty to use the gallery as a teaching and research tool has been created.
“I hope that they inspire students to think about leadership and how they can succeed in higher education,” Culshaw says. “I’m hoping they’re more than just history and are a way to engage students.
The former presidents say they’re honored to be a part of an esteemed university tradition.
“The pictures capture something special about each of us,” says Mason. “People commented to me that they loved the portrait because I look so relaxed, which I probably never looked when I was here as president. Relaxed was not a mode we were in very much around here.”
“I'm deeply touched that Iowa is updating this presidential portrait gallery,” says Coleman “I know some universities do it but many don't, and so I am deeply grateful that Iowa is doing this and feel very honored to be part of it.”