image of the 1936 Art Building
Thursday, August 30, 2018
Tom Snee

The building where Grant Wood created his world-famous art soon will become a place where University of Iowa students and faculty can collaborate and innovate to solve problems and change the world.

The UI will ask the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, at its September meeting for permission to convert the former Art Building into an innovation center that crosses disciplinary boundaries and brings people together to experiment, learn, and build.

“The Art Building will once again become a space for inspiration and collaboration,” says David Hensley, executive director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (Iowa JPEC). “By bringing together inventors, creators, and leaders from a variety of backgrounds and skills, we will significantly enhance the university’s ability to support the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.”

Innovation centers are becoming increasingly common on university campuses. The idea behind them is to create an environment that gathers collaborators from on and off campus to bring groundbreaking research and scholarship to the rest of the world through new businesses and social entrepreneurialism.

Most often, innovation centers are gleaming, futuristic-looking new construction. But UI planners say the repurposed Depression-era Art Building is a perfect place to encourage innovation and creativity because the building itself is the result of innovation and creativity. Opened in 1936, the building originally was conceived as an arts colony that would bring to life the Iowa Idea, a then-revolutionary concept that brought the teaching of art history and art creation under a single roof. For centuries, the two disciplines were separate and taught as such. But then-UI President Walter Jessup, Graduate College Dean Carl Seashore, and Art Department Chairman Lester Longman thought that ideas from each would cross-pollinate if they were taught together, leading to more innovative, creative, and well-developed art and art scholarship.

The Art Building was visualized with the Iowa Idea in mind, and the two departments formally merged in 1938. Steve McGuire, professor of metal arts and 3-D design and director of the School of Art and Art History, says the philosophy behind the Iowa Idea proved to be a sound one.

“Teaching the two disciplines together is standard in most art schools today,” McGuire says.

The atmosphere in the building encouraged groundbreaking art and scholarship by the people who worked there. Legendary faculty members and students included Wood, who was on the faculty from 1935 to 1942; Longman; printmaker Mauricio Lasansky; painter Philip Guston; Museum of Modern Art Deputy Curator Riva Castleman; and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, the first African American to be awarded a Master of Fine Arts degree in the U.S.

“Once restored to its original grandeur, the Art Building will be home to the next evolution of the Iowa Idea and continue the heritage of 170 years of research and discovery at the university,” says McGuire. “The Iowa Idea will expand beyond the arts to encompass engineering, health care, the liberal arts, law, business, entrepreneurship, and other disciplines on campus.”

The building is surrounded by creativity and innovation in the form of buildings designed by two of the world’s most groundbreaking architects—across Riverside Drive are Art Building West and the Visual Arts Building, both designed by Steven Holl; directly across the river is the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories, bearing the distinctive design of Frank Gehry.

The Art Building has been vacant since the basement suffered extensive damage during the 2008 flood. It has 53,200 square feet of space over four floors, including 5,580 square feet in two detached studios connected to the main building by porticos—one of which was Wood’s when he was on the faculty. The costs of repair, flood-proofing, and conversion into a modern innovation center are expected to range between $20 million and $25 million. All costs will be paid for with private donations, and the building is expected to be ready for use by the spring semester of 2021.

Programming for the innovation center still is under development, coordinated by Hensley and Sarah Gardial, dean of the Tippie College of Business.

“We will meet with deans, faculty members, and many other campus partners in the coming months to gather their ideas,” Gardial says. “We want to ensure the innovation center is a welcoming place for potential innovators and entrepreneurs from all across campus, students and faculty in every college and department, and from around the state of Iowa.”

The innovation center is expected to provide a variety of resources and support for advancing discoveries and ideas. It will feature an important learning and academic component, primarily as the home of the array of programs offered by Iowa JPEC that introduce students and faculty to business and social entrepreneurship while connecting them to external resources that could bring their ideas to life.

“Innovators will have access to a thriving community of resources,” says Susan Curry, interim provost and executive vice president. “Business students will bring knowledge about financial and management models to support innovation; law students will provide insight into intellectual property and patents; engineering students will assist in prototyping; computer sciences students will help with software development; medical students will advise about device development and testing; and liberal arts students will help with design, creativity, and communication.”

The center also will be the hub of the university’s economic-development efforts, making it easier for businesses and organizations to access university expertise and resources to solve real-world problems.

As former dean of the UI College of Public Health, Curry knows the value of bringing together researchers from different backgrounds.

“When an epidemiologist works with a health policy analyst in the College of Public Health building, they each bring distinct perspectives and unique skills to the discussion, and the research goes in new directions,” says Curry. “When an epidemiologist works with an engineer or an art professor or a chemist in the innovation center, who knows what innovative solutions to problems we’ll discover?”

Art Building facts

The building was designed by renowned university architect George Homer.

  • The original cost of construction was $200,000, half of which was paid for by a grant from the Carnegie Corp.
  • Above the main, eastside entrance is carved the Latin phrase “Ars longa/vita brevis est” (Art endures/life is short).
  • The building was the first non-medical academic building on the west side of campus.
  • East of the building, across the Iowa River, is the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories, designed by Frank Gehry. To the west, across the street, are Art Building West and the Visual Arts Building, designed by Steven Holl.
  • Prominent faculty who taught in the building include Grant Wood, Mauricio Lasansky, historian Lester Longman, printmaker and painter Philip Guston, painter Byron Burford, and intermedia artist Hans Breder.
  • Prominent alumni who studied in the building include Elizabeth Catlett, sculptor and the first African American to be awarded an MFA in the U.S.; Miriam Schapiro, feminist multimedia artist; Riva Castleman, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art print director and deputy curator; Charles Ray, contemporary sculptor; and Ana Mendieta, a Cuban immigrant multimedia artist.

Significant dates

June 1934: Cornerstone laid
Fall semester 1936: First classes held
1969: Additional wings and classrooms added for printmaking, ceramics, pottery, and other disciplines, hiding much of the building from view
2008: Evacuated and mothballed after the Iowa River flooded
2013: Wings and additions built in the 1960s demolished, leaving only the original 1936 structure