New art museum director starts today with a vision


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DAVENPORT — Sean O'Harrow wants everyone to see art.

But not on a computer screen or a projector, which he said has become the norm. Bringing real, tangible art to students is crucial in a society often missing out on beauty, he said.

"I don't want museums to be special places," he said. "I want them to be normal places."

Today marks the day O'Harrow, the former director of the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, will begin his tenure as the director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art. The floods of 2008 destroyed the museum's former building, and FEMA denied approval to build a new facility. The UIhas since appealed.

But O'Harrow said he is not worried, and instead, he looks to the future.

He grew up in museums. The native of Hawaii said he was "practically raised" in the Honolulu Academy of Arts and was "always a museum kid."

His excitement about art hasn't diminished, which is evident when he shows off his favorite piece at the Figge Art Museum: Study of a Cow, a piece by Rosa Bonheur. Smiling, he admits the perspective — a rear angle of a brown-splotched cow facing a blue sky — is unique. But that's why he likes it.

The 42-year-old knows about every piece in the museum, located on the Mississippi River. Walking from a John Deere exhibit to a traveling exhibition called Dancing Toward Death — always with his arms crossed comfortably across his chest — he moves from piece to piece, excitedly describing different characteristics of each one.

"You have to see the same thing over and over again to fully understand it," he said.

Since he was 18 years old, O'Harrow had an inkling he wanted to become a director of a museum. While attending the University of Rhode Island, he studied business administration, with a focus on art-museum management.

He said the many places he's lived and studied — including Hawaii, London, the East Coast, and the Midwest — have given him a unique perspective. Snow, or "ice falling from the sky," is exotic to the Hawaiian.

In Hawaii, he developed an appreciation of Asian art, and he now prefers ceramics. He's also made music, composing and playing instruments such as the harpsichord.

Working with educational institutions will be nothing new for O'Harrow, who has worked with many Quad City schools since he became director of Figge in 2007. He also has 20 years worth of partnerships in higher education. Before joining the Figge, O'Harrow spent six years as the developing director at St. Catherine's College at the University of Cambridge, England.

"My goal is to give [students] everyday experiences in beautiful things," he said.

Strolling among the UI collection at Figge, O'Harrow excitedly unveiled his hopes for the UI in hushed tones. His plans include working with the current spaces that house art on campus and to continue to intermingle good art with the daily lives of UI students, faculty, and staff.

With the university facing funding obstacles in all departments, he said, it's "all about priorities" when it comes to keeping the art program moving forward.

He also plans to implement ways in which community members can learn more about the inner workings of a museum — "the guts" behind the art everyone views. What people do not realize, he said, is that at least 60 percent of a museum is behind the scenes.

With the lack of a physical museum, the search committee faced a unique task in selecting the new director, said Timothy Barrett, a member of the committee that selected O'Harrow.

"It's been a great pleasure to work with him," said Willard "Sandy" Boyd, the UI Art Museum's current interim director and a former president of the university. "This is one of the premier university museums in the country, and it will be even better with Sean."

Though his job officially begins today, he has been preparing for the transition for a few weeks, traveling this past weekend to St. Louis to look at potential exhibits for the UI.

"The region has a lot of potential … and I know [it's] not living up to that potential," he said.

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