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Walking the Talk: The Figge Reaches Out PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 28 January 2009 13:42
Jackson Pollock's Murual

When the River Cities' Reader profiled Figge Art Museum Executive Director Sean O'Harrow in March 2008, he was, by virtue of having just seven months on the job, mostly talk. There wasn't much of a track record to cite, but he spoke with passion about enhancing the Figge's educational and community missions.

Ten months later, O'Harrow seems poised to deliver on many of his promises.

For example, a March exhibit of Michaelangelo sculptures will be the first time those have been seen outside of Florence, Italy, O'Harrow said.

More importantly, those Michaelangelo sculptures - newly cast in bronze from the fragile originals, which were scanned with a laser - can be touched, and O'Harrow is working to bring in sight-impaired people to feel them.

"Art museums normally ignore these communities," O'Harrow said in an interview Monday. "My view is: Bring everyone in sometime, somehow, for some reason. ...

"I'm really keen to have people experience things in different ways," he added. "No one living has ever been able to touch a Michaelangelo work."

The announcement on Friday that the Figge would be housing most of the University of Iowa Museum of Art collection (nearly all of which is being stored in Chicago following the summer flood in Iowa City) was further confirmation that O'Harrow is serious about education.

A Space to Call Their Own

When O'Harrow first offered to help the University of Iowa museum, he said, "I hadn't quite anticipated the scale of the final solution."

The Figge/University of Iowa partnership, O'Harrow said, will likely involve storage of thousands of the university art museum's more than 12,000 works of art. "My aim is to get it all in here," O'Harrow said.

Furthermore, an exhibit of masterworks from the U of I - including Jackson Pollock's Mural - will open in mid-April. The Iowa Board of Regents considered selling the painting - with an insurance value of $140 million - to help cover flood-related costs, but decided against it.

And O'Harrow said that curators from the university museum will be able to program exhibit space at the Figge.

"I'm hoping that we can give them spaces that they can call their own," he said. "I think that as a museum, they need that independence." He said the second-floor "avenue" gallery - 120 feet long - and the museum's orientation gallery are likely spaces that the University of Iowa museum would curate.

The University of Iowa Museum of Art has a "world-famous African collection," O'Harrow said. "It would be wonderful to see that on a regular basis."

The U of I will not being paying any rent, but it will be footing the bill for costs - such as additional security, climate control for spaces not presently used for art storage, and infrastructure for storage and display.

"We're going to be very creative about the way we store and display works," O'Harrow said. "We're just going to have to find little nooks and crannies where it's appropriate to store art."

{mosimage}For example, O'Harrow said the Figge's library/reading room can be converted into a viewable storage area for ceramics, and the University of Iowa would need to pay for the glass shelving.

The downside of the partnership, O'Harrow said, is less room at the Figge, less programmable space, and the sometimes-glacial decision-making process of large bureaucracies and political bodies.

But the relationship is worth it, he said: "The value is the partnership with the University of Iowa. That is the big win. ... Cooperation between institutions is not only the best way forward in tough times, but it's the best way forward in the best of times."

Although the Figge's endowment and reserves - roughly $5 million together - haven't grown in O'Harrow's tenure, he said the Figge can still reach its goal of a $20-million endowment by 2011.

"We have some prospects that are working," he said. "In this sort of business, to get that sort of money, it takes a year or two to get all the contacts primed."

He added the University of Iowa relationship will be a big boost to the endowment effort: "In a funny way, we have probably a better chance of making it [now, in a sluggish economy] than we did a year ago, because partnerships like the one with the University of Iowa actually raise our profile and show people how important institutions like this are to the Quad Cities and the region in general. People like to back success."

O'Harrow noted that because the University of Iowa Museum of Art is currently looking for a new space in Iowa City, he anticipates that its works will be at the Figge for several years. "It's the length of time it takes them to build a new museum, or acquire a space that is acceptable," he said. "I would be surprised if it was much less than three to five years."

He added that a more permanent relationship is also possible, because storage of some works at the flood-proof Figge gives the University of Iowa flexibility in terms of the amount of space it needs to build or acquire. "They don't have to build as big a facility," O'Harrow said.

In the short term, some traveling shows booked by the University of Iowa might be hosted at the Figge, or split between the University of Iowa campus and the Figge. "That kind of situation will strengthen ties between the Quad Cities and Iowa City," O'Harrow said.

A Hub

The new University of Iowa partnership fits in well with what O'Harrow has implemented in his tenure so far.

O'Harrow said that he's established relationships with every institution of higher education in the region. For example, the Western Illinois University museum-studies program is, in part, taught by Figge staff, he said: "This museum is the lab."

St. Ambrose University is developing an arts- and humanities-related program that will largely be based at the Figge.

O'Harrow also said that the Figge has assembled a formal committee of local art professors to advise the museum on exhibits. The premise, he said, is that exhibits that are good for an art-survey course are also appropriate for the general public. "Art 101 is a very good level, because it doesn't talk down to people, but it assumes that people don't know a lot about art," he said.

And the Figge's incoming senior curator, Greg Gilbert, will hold a joint position at the Figge and in the art-history department at Knox College in Galesburg. The two institutions are able to split the cost and the expertise.

"The aim of all of that is to act as a hub for these institutions," O'Harrow said.

Just as educational institutions need to collaborate more, he said, so should museums. Before the summer flood, O'Harrow said he was working on a concept of an inter-museum lending program - a way for Iowa museums to swap their works so that they can be more widely seen and augment exhibits and education programs.

"It was a new model of museum management," he said. Art museums typically display less than 10 percent of their collections, and the combination of an online database and a lending program could significantly increase that.

"Hoarding should never be a goal for any museum, and I know that most museums are hoarders," he said. "But we're here to serve the public. Hoarding actually works against the public, because it means that we don't see art."

O'Harrow, like those before him, casts the Figge as an economic-development tool - a facility that can attract people to the Quad Cities, as both visitors and residents.

{mosimage}The current exhibit Sleeping with the Leopard: African Art from Cameroon has the potential to do that because of the rarity of the works. It "is nationally a very important exhibition," O'Harrow said during a press tour Friday. That's because art from that country is "very rarely seen" outside its own borders, he added. "The art is fairly unknown."

And the 1943 Pollock painting - nearly 20 feet wide - has the star power to bring a wider and younger audience than anything in the Figge's permanent collection.

"We want to have a mixture of things that are incredibly important ... so that people will travel to the museum, maybe from further afield than just the immediate region," O'Harrow said this week. "I want to be an institution that generally contributes to world knowledge."

But O'Harrow also recognizes that the Figge has to be accessible, and he said he wants to bring in people who've never been to art museum.

The current Illinois River duck-decoys exhibit, for example, has brought in an outdoorsman audience. "We have seen loads of people with fluorescent jackets and badges on their hats ... ," O'Harrow said. "They may never come back, but at least we got them in to see some stuff."

O'Harrow also said that the state's Vision Iowa investment of $13.5 million in the Figge is now paying dividends, as the University of Iowa Museum of Art arrangement has spread the benefit to other parts of the state. "Now it's working," he said. "The critics can be quiet now. ... Now it's paying back. Now the greatest university art collection in the state if not the region is able to come home again and be preserved. And be shown."


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