When Lauren Lessing walked onto the site of the new University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art for the first time earlier this year, she screamed. Nearby construction workers thought the museum director had fallen.
Her scream, she says, was from pure excitement for what the museum will bring to the University of Iowa, the Iowa City community, and the state of Iowa.
When the 63,000-square-foot facility opens in fall 2022, it will bring to an end 14 years the campus has been without a permanent art museum. Under the leadership of third-year director Lessing, the museum will go above and beyond to define what an art museum means.
“The University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art is going to be a library of global visual culture and a laboratory for experiential learning. Our new building is really well designed to help us achieve that goal,” says Lessing.
Lessing was named director in 2018, shortly before the 10-year anniversary of the 2008 flood that closed the old museum. As director, she quickly began working to ensure that the new museum would benefit every student, college, and department on campus.
The original building was located on the west side of campus along the Iowa River near Hancher Auditorium. The new museum is centrally located next to the Main Library and Gibson Square Park, strategically placed to increase accessibility and visibility.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of a better location,” says Lessing.
The project, which broke ground in April 2019, remains on time and under budget. The completed exterior—a protruding black brick veneer—allows the sun to cast shadows throughout the day, and work has now moved on to the interior, where floors, walls, and amenities are being added, including a multipurpose lobby that will allow the museum to host a variety of events.
Lessing says she wants the lobby to be a welcoming place for students, faculty, and staff, modeled after the first-floor space created in the Main Library.
“I want students in the lobby all the time, on their laptops working on projects and being collaborative,” says Lessing.
With long white walls and offset doorways, the second-floor galleries will house a majority of the museum’s publicly available works, including Jackson Pollock’s Mural. The third floor—the education floor—is where students, faculty, and staff will benefit most, and is where art and education will merge.
“The education floor is amazing,” says Lessing. “We have three state-of-the-art teaching spaces, a seminar room, and a visual classroom. They all work differently so we can tailor viewing experiences for what campus needs.”
Each space can support varied class sizes, and pieces of art can easily be swapped in and out as needed. Lessing says it will be up to the students to take the museum to the next level.
“There’s great research to be done in the museum, not only in social sciences but also hard sciences. Students should be involved in that work. I want us to be a laboratory and a library,” says Lessing.
Throughout its history, the UI has been a pioneer for education in the arts. Iowa was one of the first public universities to offer an MFA in studio arts and creative writing. In fact, former Graduate College Dean Carl Seashore and university President Walter Jessup first had the idea to merge art and education in the 1920s—calling it the “Iowa idea.”
But just as the thinking of art museums as extensions of academic curriculum gained momentum in the early 2000s, the museum was lost to the flood.
“I want to bring Iowa up to where other academic museums are,” says Lessing. “Then I want to restore us at our rightful place as a leader, because we always have been.”