Davenport-based Russell close to completing construction of new University of Iowa art museum

After 14 years, the University of Iowa will finally have a new art museum again, thanks in large part to a Davenport-based construction firm and a Muscatine family.

Pending final inspection, Russell Construction expects to complete the $36.8-million University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art in Iowa City and turn it over to the UI to move in on Dec. 23. Lauren Lessing, director of the Stanley Museum of Art, recently told the UI Staff Council that the 86,176-square-foot, three-level building is nearly finished and staff can start settling in in mid-January. Art will not move into the museum until April, and a ribbon-cutting will take place next September.

“It’s really exciting for Russell to be involved in building this museum,” Erin Marsh, the museum project manager for Davenport-based Russell, said recently. “It’s part of the university campus and influential in the community. It will be an opportunity for K-12 kids to come through on field grips, see art. It will really have a long-lasting impact on the community.”

With subcontractors (including Quad Cities-based Ryan and Associates, Tri-City Electric, and Treiber Construction), Russell has employed 200 people in the construction process, which began in August 2019, Marsh said.

An exterior rendering of the new art museum, to open in early September 2022, at 150 N. Riverside Drive, Iowa City.

The Stanley Museum of Art — at 150 N. Riverside Drive, along the Iowa River, next to the Theatre Building — will be the final structure to be rebuilt on the UI campus in the aftermath of the 2008 flood. Once complete, the museum will host exhibitions from the museum’s collection as well as traveling exhibits, and provide space for study, research, and storage of artwork. Among highlights:

  • The museum will house Jackson Pollock’s world-renowned “Mural,” an 8’ x 20’ painting valued at $150 million.
  • The building’s loading dock and freight elevator (with a 21’x10’ interior cab) is designed for this painting to be moved in and out of the building.
  • Elaborate brick design patterns – each brick is accounted for and shown where it should be placed in the architectural drawings.
  • Building is designed to accommodate flooding of the nearby Iowa River – the first floor is 7 feet above grade with parking garage below.
  • A 400-square-foot lightwell in the middle of the building that extends 3 stories, bringing indirect natural light into the building.
  • Two third-floor outdoor terraces, providing views of the surrounding areas.
  • Intricate exterior finish system including custom hand-made bricks, triple- pane glass and perforated metal panels.
  • The construction team 3D modeled building systems to facilitate installation and allow maintenance access.
A three-story “lightwell” will allow lots of natural into the new art museum.

The art museum, established in 1969, is one of the leading university art collections in the country, according to the museum website. Approximately 15,500 objects constitute diverse collections that include paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, photographs, ceramics, textiles, jade, and silver.

The Elliott Collection of post-Impressionist European art includes paintings by Braque, de Chirico, Kandinsky, Léger, Marc, MatissePicasso, and Vlaminck, among others. The Stanley Collection of African Art is part of one of the most significant collections of African art in the country which today numbers over 2,000 objects.

After the flood of June 2008, the museum building was permanently evacuated. The collections were moved out in time and most have been temporarily located in the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, 50 miles from Iowa City.

The museum’s dedicated spaces on campus include the Stanley Visual Classroom, a 4,000-square-foot exhibit space in the Iowa Memorial Union that houses more than 500 works of art from the collections. Temporary and traveling exhibitions were hosted in the Black Box Theater in the third floor at the IMU until summer 2018.

Muscatine family generosity

In 2017, Richard (Dick) and Mary Jo Stanley, of Muscatine, committed $10 million to support the building campaign for the University of Iowa Museum of Art. The gift came from two generations of the family. In honor of the transformational gift, the museum was renamed the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.

Richard Stanley of Muscatine (1932-2017), a professional engineer, and his wife Mary Jo have been longtime donors to the University of Iowa.

The couple’s generosity is well-documented across campus and includes support for Hancher Auditorium and the UI College of Engineering, as well as the UI Museum of Art. Dick earned his master’s degree in engineering from UI in 1963, and died at age 85 on Nov. 17, 2017, at University Hospitals, Iowa City.

A portion of the art museum gift came from the estate of Dick Stanley’s parents, C. Maxwell and Elizabeth Stanley, who developed one of the country’s finest and most well-respected collections of African art, which they donated to the museum in 1985. The Stanley Collection of African Art continues to be an important resource for research at the UI and for scholars from around the world. C. Maxwell Stanley earned his bachelor’s degree (1926) and his master’s degree (1930) in engineering from the UI, and Elizabeth Stanley earned her bachelor’s degree in education from the UI in 1927.

“The decision to name the museum in the Stanleys’ honor is particularly appropriate; their generous monetary pledge, announced today, comes on top of a multi-decade array of family sculptural donations that are the heart of the university’s 2,400-piece African collection,” Jim Leach, then interim director of the UI Museum of Art, said in the 2017 announcement.

Russell began construction on the 86,176-square-foot museum in August 2019.

“When future generations visit the museum and see uplifting art from every corner of the world, they also will be witnessing the philanthropic impact of model citizens within and outside the state. In this galaxy of cultural generosity, as well as international humanism, Dick and Mary Jo have few peers. The university is deeply grateful.”

“For more than 50 years, Dick and Mary Jo’s inspirational volunteerism and generosity have had a profound impact on our students, faculty, and community,” said Lynette Marshall, president and CEO of the University of Iowa Center for Advancement. “The University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art honors their exemplary citizenship in our university community and is a wonderful tribute to their lives of service and giving.”

Russell’s history with area museums

The landmark Figge Art Museum (225 W. 2nd St., Davenport) was built by Russell as a joint venture with Pepper Construction out of Chicago. That $48-million project was the four-story, 110,000-square-foot museum, including 25,000 square feet of gallery space, restaurant, gift shop, five art studios, auditoriums and a 45,000-square-foot, 86-space below grade parking garage.

The $48-million Figge Art Museum in downtown Davenport opened in 2005.

The joint venture was called Russell – Pepper, and that same entity built the $40-million addition and renovation to the UnityPoint Health – Trinity Heart Center / Emergency Room in Rock Island, which opened in 2015.

The only other museum projects that Russell has been involved with are for Iowa 80 Group at their Trucking Museum in Walcott, and a small project this year for the Putnam Museum & Science Center in Davenport.

Russell created the entrance to the Putnam’s new World Culture Gallery, which opened in May, including work in the exhibit space, and upgrading all finishes in the World Culture and Unearthing Ancient Egypt exhibits.

Russell completed $3.7 million in additions to the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum and Hall of Fame in Walcott.

Des Moines-based BNIM Architects designed the new UI art museum, which it describes as a “state-of-the-art facility providing stringent environmental and security requirements to house the University’s extensive African Art Collection and the seminal Jackson Pollock painting ‘Mural.’

“The building includes a greeting and gathering entry area, galleries, teaching studios, student commons, administrative offices, art storage, conservation and art shipping/receiving, and a secured and tempered truck loading bay,” according to its description.

The interior design concept was developed to bring the outside in through large glass facades and occupiable voids in the building, acting as an extension of the neighboring public greenspace. Public spaces and administrative offices feature daylighting, and a central exterior courtyard provides an amenity space for gallery viewers and additional display space for large sculptural installations.

Michelle and Jim Russell announced their $20,000 donation in July 2021, to the Figge’s new Art Diversity and Equity Fund (photo by Jonathan Turner).

This past July, Russell CEO Jim Russell and his wife Michelle announced a $20,000 donation to launch the Figge’s new Art Diversity and Equity Fund. They encouraged community members to consider contributing any amount to this fund so their contribution can be matched and ultimately exceeded dollar-for-dollar, allowing the Figge to reach the goal of raising $100,000.

“Jim and I feel strongly about this initiative in general, and feel it is important for our community to have a museum that focuses on representing all people, voices, and perspectives,” Michelle Russell said then. “It is our hope that others will consider stepping forward in all ways to build an all-inclusive reality in our community, and specifically to donating to this important fund designed to help the Figge continue to promote inclusivity.”

Figge executive director Michelle Hargrave not only thanked the Russells for their generosity, but noted the Figge would not be here without them, since Russell built the museum, which opened in 2005.

“I think the best piece of art in this collection is this building,” Jim Russell said in July.

What’s so special about “Mural”?

The world famous “Mural” (1943) by Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) has been on a tour of various art institutions across the country and world, since the former UI Museum of Art was flooded out in 2008 — including its first move to the Figge in Davenport until 2012.

Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” (1943) was displayed at the Figge Art Museum from 2009-2012 (courtesy of The Pollock/Krasner Foundation and Artists Rights Society)

Donated by Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) to the art museum in 1951, “Mural” has been a long-time resident at the University of Iowa.

Commissioned by the New York art impresario to create a mural for the foyer of her ritzy East 61st Street townhouse, Pollock opted to work with a massive swath of stretched, Belgian canvas rather than the wall itself so the piece could later be relocated, if needed, according to a December 2019 feature in Iowa Magazine.

“If not for that foresight, Mural‘s history may have been fleeting. After the Second World War, as Guggenheim left New York for Venice, the painting was rolled up and shipped to Yale, which declined to keep it,” the story says. Guggenheim ultimately donated it to the University of Iowa’s innovative School of Art and Art History. In Iowa City, Mural shuffled between the old Art Building and Main Library before becoming a fixture in the UI Museum of Art when it opened in 1969.

“Beyond that history of movement, there’s also the motion on the canvas to consider,” according to the magazine. “It was Pollock’s wild, sweeping brushwork in his New York flat—he had to surreptitiously knock out a partition to make room for the 8-by-20-foot canvas—that resulted in a work unlike anything he’d ever created. ‘It looks pretty big, but exciting as all hell,’ Pollock wrote in a letter to his brother that summer. It was his first commissioned work, and Mural would prove to be the largest painting of his career.”

An architectural rendering of the permanent home for “Mural” in the UI Stanley Museum of Art.

Further, experts point to Mural as the birth of an entire art movement. The painting marked the moment when Pollock pivoted away from surrealism toward a spontaneous and gestural style that would be called abstract expressionism, the Iowa feature says.

Mural was a watershed in 20th century American art and a precursor to the horizontal drip paintings that made Pollock famous by the 1950s. “It was a breakthrough,” says Stanley Museum of Art Director Lauren Lessing. “The idea that he had to tell a story, or be mythical, or reach into this long narrative tradition of European art going back to the Greeks and Romans—he kind of let it all go. That was Mural. It was pure abstraction, free of the influence of surrealism.”

In the case of “Mural,” the piece visited the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles for conservation and restoration before beginning its travels, while the Stanley Museum of Art’s campus presence is revived in a new facility.

“A year-and-a-half recuperation at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles restored the yellowed, sagging mural to its original vibrancy,” the New York Times wrote in December 2020. Since then, the massive canvas — the thing weighs 345 pounds — has been craned in to England, Spain, Italy, Germany, across the U.S. (including Boston and Sioux City), and finally, fittingly, to New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, before coming home to Iowa City.

BNIM tracked the Pollock’s international travels on its website. To learn more about the new UI Stanley Museum of Art, click here.