Iowa’s 10 Best Contemporary Art Galleries and Museums
Though Iowa may be better known for its literary legacy, the state has a lively contemporary art scene that has been developing and gaining momentum over the last 50 years, producing famous artists and works. With a focus largely on Midwestern art, these ten contemporary art galleries and museums represent top talents from the area, from Iowa City to Des Moines and Ames.
UIMA Temporary Exhibition Space | Image Courtesy of University of Iowa Museum of Art
Transplanted from New York City, the Hudson River Gallery is located in a Victorian mansion and has managed to create a curious space that is at once homely and elegant, filled to the brim with pieces of art hanging on walls and resting on the wooden floors adorned with beautiful rugs. The gallery’s regular shows and exhibitions are effortlessly high-brow affairs, attracting locals and visitors who browse the artwork and enjoy the drinks and conversation. Exhibitions have introduced the Iowa community to works from Luigi Silvi – a painter who trained in Italy and continues to be inspired by his roots, and Sue Hettmansperger – an artist who stretches and breaks conventional form with her deeply metaphorical collages. The owner, Nick Hotek, is always on hand to provide a consultation service for customers, and is committed to serving the public with a passion for art and curation.
Iowa Artisans Gallery | Photo by Alan Light | Flickr
The UIMA is a fixture on the Iowa art scene, despite still being in a state of flux after its collections were dispersed to temporary locations as a result of the 2008 flooding damage to university buildings. The museum deserves its reputation as one of the best college art museums in the USA, boasting an impressive collection of contemporary art, including works by Pollock, Chagall, Matisse and Picasso, donated by Peggy Guggenheim and other famed benefactors. The Stanley Collection of African Art contains almost 2,000 pieces and is an unrivalled exhibition of this genre. Whilst some of the works can be seen at the Figge Art Museum, there are plans already in the works to return the museum’s entire collection to campus in a new museum building. In the meantime, seasonal exhibitions are held at the Black Box Theatre at the Iowa Memorial Union, which will reopen more space to the public in the near future. The museum organisation still regularly puts on events across various locations around Iowa City, so it is worth checking their calendar and Facebook page for information about cultural happenings.
‘Contemporary American Craft is our focus, and Midwestern artists are our speciality’, the Iowa Artisans Gallery owners state, and this certainly rings true with over 45 artists as members and a new exhibition of Midwestern art every few months. The gallery was founded 30 years ago by a group of artists, and maintains to this day an emphasis on grassroots art production and curation. The gallery takes part in almost every cultural event in Iowa City, and is renowned as an unmissable destination on an art tour of the town. The space is bright and airy, despite its historic location, and the work is carefully displayed to create a sophisticated browsing experience. Local artists such as pastel painter Debora Stewart and experimental potter Frank Detri regularly add to their collections at the Iowa Artisans Gallery, which sustains its reputation as a fundamental contributor to the city’s evolving art scene.
In the bustling downtown area of Iowa City, Chait Galleries Downtown have been exhibiting the work of local and international artists for over 10 years. They stock pieces across the spectrum of visual art, including wood sculptures, fine art paintings, prints, photographs and ‘wearable art’ fashion pieces. The gallery takes part in Iowa City art festivals, displaying work by local artists, and has even briefly exhibited an original piece by Salvador Dalí, before it was put up for auction. Stop by to browse the exhibitions by regional artists, or to pick up a prized piece for your home.
Steven Vail’s installation in a restored historic building in downtown Iowa City is one of the state’s better-known galleries for contemporary and modern art. The Project Room is Vail’s second gallery, after his overwhelmingly successful venture in Des Moines. His niche is that he displays international and high-profile artists, such as Damien Hirst and Willem de Koonig, whose works have been exhibited in famous art museums across the world. The exhibitions tend to have an academic dimension, exploring intersections between different artistic mediums, and new art movements. Knowledgeable staff at the gallery also curate information about the art world, so it is well worth following them on Facebook for this resource.
More than a venue for exhibitions, the Octagon Center for the Arts is a true community center, promoting involvement and education through weekly events and classes, alongside high quality contemporary art collections. The gallery has partnered exhibitions with state art groups such as the Iowa Pastel Society and the Iowa Watercolour Society, and has promoted the work of award-winning artists such as Keri Ippolito through curated exhibitions. The center also displays the winners of regional art competitions in photography and youth art. Many local artists take the opportunity to get involved in activities and exhibitions, making this venue an important destination for those interested in experiencing home-grown contemporary work.
Grant Wood, Self-Portrait, Figge Art Gallery, 1925 | WikiCommons
Though it certainly doesn’t qualify as one of Iowa’s small art galleries, The Figge Art Museum cannot be missed on a tour of the Midwestern contemporary art scene. Housing the state’s best collection of regional art, the museum also focuses on community involvement and education, which has also served to enrich its own collection by showcasing emerging and young artists from the region. Two of the permanent collections displaying contemporary art are the Midwest Regionalist Collection, which exhibits artists of the 1930s and 40s such as Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, and the Haitian Collection, which offers an insight into the development of the Haitian artistic movement since the 1940s, with pieces by artists such as Castera Bazile. The 2005 museum building, designed by British architect David Chipperfield, is itself culturally significant, towering against the skyline with glass panels reflecting the local landscape.
Based in West Des Moines, the capital of Iowa State, Olson Larsen Galleries represents over 60 distinguished artists, many of whom have won awards and often display their work in the permanent collections of major museums. Venerated Midwestern artists, such as sculptor Mac Hornecker and painter Gary Bowling have been exhibited in the gallery, which rotates its exhibitions every six to eight weeks through the community of artists it represents. Clients range from individual collectors to big companies sourcing impressive pieces for their offices.
The Moberg Gallery specialises in ‘Art in Spaces’, creating immersive artistic environments by selecting artwork to fit a particular space, resulting in an almost seamless separation between space and the art itself. In addition to the results of Moberg’s services, seen in public and private spaces across the state, many of the 50 represented artists are also showcased through exhibitions in the gallery, including Richard Kelley’s Images of Fantasy and Delight and Chris Vance’s surreal baby food & monkey brains collection. The variety and quality of Moberg’s art is stunning, and it is easy to understand why the gallery has garnered such a strong reputation for affecting the visual arts culture in Iowa.
A Piece of Work Inc. is all about stunning pieces of original artwork, produced by talented artists specialising in a wide range of mediums, including woodwork, ceramics, quilt work, glass art and digital comics. Occupying the historic Walker Motor Company building in Olde Town Spirit Lake, there is a focus here on retail, with each artist occupying an alcove in the shop to display his or her work. It is no exaggeration to say that the artwork sold is strikingly original and beautifully executed; the collections of glasswork, multi-media art, acrylic paintings, photography and quilt work sample just a small taste of what’s on offer. In addition to art workshops, the gallery also puts on exhibitions which showcase emerging local talent, and organises Art Walks and artist talks on the first Friday of the month, where guests can experience the local art scene for themselves.
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