Something to admire
UIMA Director Sean O’Harrow envisions art museum for 21st century
No building? No problem.
Don’t misunderstand him. Sean O’Harrow, the new director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, is eager to return the UIMA’s flood-banished art collection to campus, but his creative juices are also energized by the possibilities that can be explored in the meantime.
“We will eventually have a museum building, but perhaps before then we can experiment and look at all sorts of approaches that we would never have explored otherwise,” he says.
O’Harrow is setting a lofty goal for the UIMA’s future: “My intention is to create a university museum for the 21st century—one that other institutions will want to learn from.”
It all starts with the UI collection, O’Harrow notes. “A lot of people assume that the most important thing about an art museum is the art museum building, when in fact it’s the collection. Art museum buildings come and go, they age and become dated, they often have to be extended, and even rebuilt.”
It’s the collection that represents the “substance” of the museum. “It should all be about substance and what’s in the box, not about the trappings,” O’Harrow says. “Part of the reason Jackson Pollock’s painting Mural is so central to the museum’s mission in serving the university and the state is because it is a genuinely significant work of art. Pollock represents the beginning of the American century in art.
“The Pollock [Mural] is why we’re on the map.”
O’Harrow has become intimately acquainted with the UIMA collection as the director of the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, where the bulk of the UIMA artwork is being displayed and stored until a new campus art building opens. “I think this collection is easily in the top dozen, particularly for 20th century Western art, and definitely in the top couple for African art,” he says.
For O’Harrow, the significance of the UI collection presents opportunities that cannot be ignored. “I feel that the most effective art museums in the world are university art museums because they have a mission to educate, do research, and challenge audiences. Art museums exist to push intellectual boundaries and to show people new things or teach people new ways of looking at things.”
In pursuing such a mission, O’Harrow believes that the art museum can contribute to what is already a city and region that is rich in culture and the arts. “I want to approach the art museum from the point of view of an artistic Silicon Valley,” he says. A vibrant arts community will help attract and retain people who will bring resources, culture, networks, and other opportunities for the University and the state.
First, O’Harrow hopes to tap into the strength of the faculty in the UI School of Art and Art History. Second, O’Harrow will proceed with the assumption that the UIMA is really the Iowa Museum of Art. That might lead to agreements with other Iowa museums to display some of the UIMA art and to share each other’s collections. “It is important for us to reach as many citizens and visitors in Iowa as we can. We have a logistical challenge with the way our population is spread out, but I don’t think we should use that as an excuse not to try to reach other parts of our community,” he states.