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UI art museum director talks Pollock, challenging norms

BY ARIANA WITT | MARCH 28, 2011 7:20 AM

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The location of the new University of Iowa Museum of Art remains unknown, but Director Sean O’Harrow knows exactly what he wants: a building that challenges the norms of art museums in the United States.

Art displayed throughout the UI campus and a museum that would also house the School of Art and Art History are things traditional museums just don’t do, he said.

“At universities, we develop new models to learn from,” O’Harrow said. “At the UI, we want to develop a model that will teach others. It’s our job to go against the norm and advance art education.”

At an event in Davenport’s Figge Art Museum on Sunday, O’Harrow and others from the Iowa art community discussed the ramifications of controversial legislation that nearly forced the UI to sell Jackson Pollock’s Mural for scholarship money earlier this year.

The painting, estimated to be worth $150 million, is currently housed at Figge.

The bill was proposed by Rep. Scott Raecker, R-Urbandale, who withdrew the proposal following an outpouring of disapproval by much of the art world.



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Linda Lewis, former president of the Figge, said many only see the dollar value of art.

“No politician will take the time to understand the argument and the value of education in art,” she said.

To combat the attitudes that led to the Pollock controversy, O’Harrow said he wants to push the boundaries of the accessibility of art.

But this may start off campus with the Mural’s tour across the country, O’Harrow said. UI officials are planning a tour for 2013 near the end of the 100-year commemoration of Pollock’s birth.

On campus, however, O’Harrow wants everything — the people, the architecture, and the atmosphere — to create a sense of artistic openness.

Though he said he wants a traditional building structure, he also envisions each room allowing visitors to see as much art as possible.

“People will be exposed to art and they may not know much about it,” O’Harrow said. “But the key thing is for them to become accustomed to art and see it on a regular basis.”

Rachel Williams, an assistant professor in the UI art school, said she feels art education is well-established in Iowa but thinks the general public’s knowledge of art is limited.

“I think it’s great that he wants to make art universal at the campus,” Williams said. “Art should be experienced everywhere.”

At least three other museum directors in the Midwest agree with O’Harrow’s plans to expand art on campus.

“Museums were basically created when art became outdated,” said Russell Panczenko, the director of Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wis. “It’s a wonderful thing to get art throughout communities, and it’s terribly important.”

Much of the UI’s art is held in Davenport after its on-campus home was damaged in the 2008 flood. Officials are now appealing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s suggestion to put the art back in the flooded former museum.

Christopher Merkle, a UI senior in the art school, was among the roughly 40 in attendance at the Sunday event. He said that while he thinks Mural can teach from afar in Davenport, he’s ready to see the painting have a permanent home in Iowa City.

“It’s important for this piece to have a building, a home,” he said. “Not having that is a loss for the university community.”

Before returning to campus, the Pollock painting’s tour is another opportunity to expand art presence, O’Harrow said.

“We haven’t decided on cities, but the general thought is that, ‘Where are places that represent the future of our planet and how can we bring the UI culture and the culture of Iowa to these people?’ ” O’Harrow said.

DI reporter Alexandria Skallacontributed to this article.


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