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Sean O’Harrow’s Exit Interview: Figge Executive Director Accepts University of Iowa Museum Position PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 18 August 2010 05:02

Sean O'Harrow in 2008In Sean O'Harrow's telling, the Figge Art Museum is gaining an ally as much as it's losing an executive director.

It was announced last week that O'Harrow has accepted the directorship of the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA), at which he'll start on November 15. A national search for O'Harrow's replacement is expected to take at least four months.

"It is my faith in this region that is keeping me here," O'Harrow said in an interview Friday. "I think there's a lot that eastern Iowa can achieve. There are a lot of great museums and great cultural offerings which I think need to be better promoted, to a certain extent organized, maybe coordinated."

And he said that after three years as executive director, he's leaving the Figge in good shape. "It's a very stable institution right now, and it's offering some very high-quality programs," O'Harrow said. "And if I can help the UIMA, I think that would be a very powerful pairing ... . It was important for me to offer my services."

O'Harrow has already proved that he believes in partnerships, especially between the University of Iowa and the Figge. As he put it in an understated way: "It is obvious to a lot of people that the University of Iowa's art is in this building."

After the flood of 2008 in Iowa City -- which forced the University of Iowa to remove the artwork from its museum -- O'Harrow offered the Figge for storage of its 12,000 works of art. That facilitated the 2009 Figge exhibit A Legacy for Iowa, which included many of the UIMA's most-famous works -- including Jackson Pollock's seminal Mural.

As the next UIMA director, O'Harrow will be charged with building a new art museum to replace the flooded one. O'Harrow in that process will have an impact on the Figge, as the UIMA size and structure will determine whether the Figge's housing of University of Iowa art is a short- or longer-term arrangement.

But given his record at the Figge, it's a good bet that O'Harrow will continue to strengthen the relationship between the two museums.

"We've been discussing things with the University of Iowa since 2008," O'Harrow said. "And so I've had discussions with them about all sorts of ways we can help and combine efforts and save money ... ." Later in our interview, he summarized: "I'm offended at duplication and redundancy and overspending in certain areas."

Interrelated Accomplishments

O'Harrow said he wasn't looking for a new job when the University of Iowa search committee approached him.

"As a museum director, you get phone calls all the time," he said. "I wasn't tempted at all."

O'Harrow was vague about why he was tempted this time, but he gives the impression that he's the type of person who needs new challenges. (The University of Iowa job will reportedly pay O'Harrow $190,000 a year. He admits he'll be getting a pay boost but said it will likely be eaten up by a higher cost of living. He declined to say how much he makes at the Figge.)

O'Harrow didn't accomplish all his articulated goals at the Figge -- especially building the museum's endowment -- and he said that he would have liked more time at the museum: "Perhaps if this came a little later, it would have made a little more sense, but the timing is what it is."

Overall, though, he talks like somebody satisfied with what he checked off his to-do list. When I asked him to list five accomplishments that define his tenure, he offered them with barely a pause. Critically, they're interrelated, all working toward the long-term health of the institution.

O'Harrow listed the accomplishments in no particular order, he stressed.

  • "The art in the building is a much higher order," he said. The permanent galleries have been reorganized so that visitors enter in the 20th Century and explore in a more organized fashion.
  • "We've built some pretty important partnerships," he said, citing those with both the University of Iowa and Western Illinois University, some of whose works will be on display soon. The Figge also hosted the first public exhibit of works from the Deere & Company corporate collection. "It covers areas that we've never completely covered, like South America and eastern Europe and Japan," O'Harrow said of Deere. "That relationship can develop further as well."
  • O'Harrow said he's helped raise the local, national, and international profile of the museum, through its assistance with the University of Iowa flood recovery and the Deere collection. He also cited a 2008 exhibit that represented the U.S. premiere of tapestries by Henry Moore. Museum board member and U.S. Bank Regional President Ken Koupal said O'Harrow helped "put the Figge on the map."
  • "We've done very well in integrating the mission of the museum into the larger development plan of the Quad Cities," O'Harrow said. This was done, in part, by convincing economic-development leaders in the Quad Cities that arts and culture are essential to attracting visitors and residents to an area. "You can't build an institution like this and walk away from it," he said. "It exists for a reason that is greater than just showing art." Specifically, he said, the Figge is "an essential part of RiverVision. ... It [the five-year-old Figge building] has become iconic. It is probably the most famous building in the Quad Cities now, perhaps."
  • "I'm proud to have steered this institution through the recession which has totally battered and in some cases destroyed other art museums in the country," O'Harrow said. "We have not only remained stable but walked out in as good a [financial] shape if not better than when it started. We now offer significantly more." He said the Figge trimmed its operational budget to make ends meet but has had a balanced budget each year. "We managed to weather the recession smelling like roses," he said. "Every one of my colleague institutions has suffered."