The address of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, 150 N. Riverside Drive, tells you all you need to know about its proximity to the Iowa River. When the museum was constructed in 1969, and when Lloyd’s of London insured the museum’s extensive—and expensive—art collection in 2002, the museum was in a 500-year flood plain.
That building stands empty now, the victim of a devastating flood that swept through Iowa City in June of 2008 causing an estimated $743 million in damage to the university, virtually destroying the arts campus and affecting 22 significant facilities on campus.
Fortunately for the art collection, which includes such masterpieces as Jackson Pollock’s 1943 painting “Mural,” there was adequate warning of impending doom. As the river quietly rose ominously to a nearly 33-foot crest, Lloyd’s actively assisted the university in boxing up and moving the collection to safety before floodwaters overwhelmed mountains of sandbags. The building was damaged so extensively that it still isn’t certain whether the structure will be renovated or leveled.
Even if saved, it definitely will not be an art museum. Lloyd’s may have raised no objections to the museum’s location when it wrote the initial arts umbrella policy, but the insurer is no longer so sanguine. Lloyd’s flatly told university officials the art collection would not be insurable if moved back to the existing museum, even for a substantial hike in the nearly $200,000-a-year premium. The university now is making plans to construct a new museum outside the floodplain and well beyond future flooding concerns.
Meanwhile, the Pollock, which was given to the University of Iowa by Peggy Guggenheim in 1951 and is estimated to be worth at least $140 million, is on display along with the bulk of the museum’s permanent collection at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, about an hour east of Iowa City on I-80. Another significant portion of the collection, the Stanley Collection of African Art, is on display in the Iowa Memorial Union, and some of the art is part of a traveling collection.
How long it will take to bring all the art home is unclear. The school has approached FEMA about getting financing for a new art museum, University President Sally Mason said at a recent alumni gathering in Washington. If no federal money is available, the university will launch a major fundraising campaign.
One thing that won’t happen is the sale of the Pollock. Michael Gartner, a member of the State Board of Regents, proposed the sale a few months after the floods as a way to pay for some of the flood damage, but that idea was rejected out of hand.