Guest Opinion: A community effort for a community space

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art director Lauren Lessing writes of the strong community that surrounds the UI.


“Phil Was Here” tags identify buildings and programs on campus in honor of Phil’s Day on May 1, 2014. Phil’s Day is brought to you by the University of Iowa Foundation and the foundation’s Student Philanthropy Group. (Daily Iowan/Allison Orvis)

I have loved the University of Iowa since 2004, when I visited campus to attend a professional conference. As I walked across the Pentacrest and around downtown Iowa City on a beautiful autumn day, I saw creativity everywhere — in the museums and the libraries, along tree-lined walks, and in bookstores and coffee shops. As I strolled, I overheard conversations about philosophy, science, music, dance, and poetry. “What a perfect place,” I thought.

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But the real beauty of this community came home to me four years later. Sitting in my kitchen in Maine, I watched UI students, faculty, and staff and Iowa City residents of all ages standing ankle-deep in rising floodwater, passing sandbags hand-to-hand and carrying precious books and works of art to safety. A newscaster said, “It’s uncertain whether the 160-year-old university will ever completely recover,” but I never had any doubt. Watching the people of this community come together to save the campus that they love, it was clear to me that their devotion to the UI was more powerful than any river.

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Now, as I complete my seventh month as director of the UI Stanley Museum of Art, the campaign to rebuild the museum is still bringing Iowans together and shining a bright light on who we are and what we believe. Steadfast supporters such as Dick and Mary Jo Stanley, whose $10 million gift has given us our name, never stopped believing in our educational and enlightening mission. Generous and civic-minded Iowans such as Chris and Suzy DeWolf — who have named the gallery that will house Jackson Pollock’s masterpiece Mural — were drawn to us by their conviction that art creates community. Thanks to these men and women and a host of other supporters across the state of Iowa and beyond, we will be able to do more than just replace what was here before. The new Stanley Museum will be a showcase for our world-class art collections, a laboratory for teaching and learning, and a gathering place for the community that has worked so tirelessly and heroically to bring us safely through the flood. I am conscious every day of what an honor it is to help realize their vision.

Lauren Lessing

Director of the UI Stanley Museum of Art