Steve McGuire is a happy man, pleased to be back on campus.
“We used to feel like we were on an island when we were in the Studio Arts Building,” says McGuire, coordinator of the Studio Arts Division of the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History. “Now, I can walk between buildings and walk around campus easily. I can see people now.”
Studio arts was relocated to a former Menards store on the southwest side of Iowa City for eight years, after the Art Building was left unusable by the 2008 flood that damaged more than 2.5 million square feet of space on the UI campus. The ad hoc quarters could charitably be described as “functional.”
But the eight-year wait for its replacement was worth it. The School of Art and Art History is whole again, and the new Visual Arts Building, located across the street from Art Building West on Riverside Drive, is a stunning piece of architecture. McGuire notes it was built specifically for art and artists, with every aspect, from classroom space down to the heating and air conditioning system, designed to facilitate teaching and producing art in the 21st century.
As we prepare to celebrate the Visual Arts Building’s grand opening on Oct. 7, McGuire shares with Iowa Now his thoughts on the past eight years.
Q: How does this building compare to art buildings on other university campuses?
A: I don’t want this to sound like exaggeration, but from what I’ve read and what I’ve seen, I’m convinced this is the best academic visual arts building built anywhere in North America in the last half century. Schools like Virginia Commonwealth University and the Rhode Island School of Art and Design have outstanding facilities, but I’m guessing their faculty would want to be here. For a faculty member to have this quality of light in the classroom studios, and teach in the incomparable technical facilities, that’s just incredible.
It’s designed so well as a space for the creation of art, even the mechanical systems. We’re not trying to make do with a space. When you walk into, say, the foundry, or kiln room, or drawing rooms, you know these spaces were designed for the curriculum that takes place in them.
Q: The New York Times said nice things about the building this summer in two stories, one of which noted how it merges art with STEM concepts. Do you agree?
A: The building fits in well with what Lester Longman called the “Iowa Idea.” He was the founding director of the school and believed art should be taught and studied within the larger context of the liberal arts. It’s the idea that studio art and art history are conjoined as an integral part of a university’s broader, overall curriculum. We see that today in that 70 percent of art majors are double majors also studying business or math or engineering.
Engineering majors are now required to take an arts course, and this building accommodates that perfectly. We’re hoping to work with other departments across campus to develop similar partnerships that bring students from other disciplines into our galleries and student spaces.
Q: How will the new building benefit Iowa?
A: It will keep many of our best art students in the state. Until now, some of Iowa’s best high school students who wanted to study art would leave for programs with better facilities. Now we have the best facilities, so we can keep many of them here. I’ve heard from parents who have said their son or daughter considered the University of Iowa more seriously once they came through this building.
Q: How will you determine if the facility has helped build a stronger studio arts program?
A: I believe The New York Times was spot on in its observation that the Visual Arts Building seeks to “break down the disciplinary and functional compartmentalization that are typical in the academic art world, in favor of flowing spaces that sweep people together.” So these are my benchmarks: Two or three years out, we see an increase in the number of prestigious post-graduate student exhibitions, residencies, and fellowships; five years out, our competitiveness for high quality applicants to our undergraduate and graduate programs place the School of Art and Art History, as a whole, among the top 10 universities for pursing a degree in studio art and art history; and finally, again five years out, we are recognized nationally for innovative interdisciplinary partnerships with both science and non-science fields. Our new facilities are perfect for this collaboration.
Q: What do you think Grant Wood and Mauricio Lasansky would think of it?
A: I suspect they would be inspired by the light. I can’t imagine they would be anything but in love with the possibilities for a future in this space.