The Des Moines Art Center has grown from a philanthropist’s vision during the Great Depression to an internationally known museum with a well-respected collection of contemporary and modern art.
“There’s any way or every way to be involved in the art center,” says Jeff Fleming, who has served as director for eight years and worked at the art center for 15.
With Fleming at the helm, the art center has worked in collaboration with city officials to open the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines, revamped its facilities from top to bottom and increased its outreach programs on an annual basis to bring in more elementary-age children to experience the arts and help at-risk youth better express themselves.
Officials say 127,781 people visited the art center last year, and an estimated 87,991 visited the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines.
Philanthropist’s endowment leads to Art Center’s creation
The Des Moines Art Center’s roots began in the decade leading up to the Great Depression with the Des Moines Association of Fine Arts on Walnut Street in the 1920s.
James Edmundson, a lawyer and real-estate investor who by some was considered a recluse, left money, real estate and other contributions totaling $1.5 million to the association to create the Des Moines Art Center in 1933. At the time he left the money, he dictated the museum must be free of charge for admission at least three days a week. Admission to the art center remains free to this day.
The art center opened in 1948 at its current location, 4700 Grand Ave. Initially, the site had a school and gallery space, however, by the 1960s, artists started working on a larger scale, and the more space was needed.
Two additions were constructed onto the facility, one of which is the white building visible from Grand Avenue created by architect Richard Meier. A third addition was completed in 2011 and is solely underground to prevent the loss of the view of Greenwood Park.
Collection focuses on modern, contemporary art
The art center’s collection contains a wide range of pieces that total about 5,000 works. The artwork is rotated both for exhibitions and conservation of the pieces. Those pieces not on display are stored in the art center’s vault.
Fleming says the art center is best known for its architecture and quality of collections.
“One of the things that makes us unique is a focus on modern and contemporary art,” he says. “We’ve put all of our resources and efforts into that area.”
While other museums focus on contemporary art, Fleming says the Des Moines Art Center’s collecting philosophy has made it create an “astonishing permanent collection.”
“We’re not going to get as many pieces by an artists as we can, but we’re going to get the best we can,” he says.
The permanent collection is composed of 20th- and 21st-century works of modern and contemporary art. There are also pieces that include other styles and cultures such as the Renaissance, Impressionism and post-Impressionism; and 18th- and 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints.
Among the list of most well-known artists and their pieces in Des Moines’ collection are:
Francis Bacon’s “Study after Velásquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” 1953. This is considered one of Bacon’s most famous pieces of work.
• Edward Hopper’s “Automat,” 1927.
• Jasper Johns’ “Tennyson,” 1958.
• Henri Matisse’s “Dame à la robe blanche (Woman in White),” 1946.
• Claude Monet’s “Rocher du Lion, Rochers à Belle-lle (Lion Rock),” 1886.
• Georgia O’Keeffe’s “From the Lake No.1,” 1924.
• Claes Oldenburg’s “Three-Way Plug, Scale A (Soft), Prototype in Blue,” 1971.
• Mark Rothko’s “Light Over Gray,” 1956.
• John Singer Sargent’s “Portraits de M.E.P…et de Mlle. L.P. (Portraits of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron),” 1881.
• Andy Warhol’s “The American Man – Watson Powell,” 1964.
“We do have quite a collection, and we’re proud of it,” says Christine Doolittle, the art center’s marketing and public relations director. “Museums and visitors from all over the world are quite impressed with what we have.”
The art center also has three visiting exhibitions each year. Currently, Phyllida Barlow’s Scree is on display. Barlow is a 69-year-old British sculptor who retired from teaching and started her own personal artist career.
Fleming says he was happy to land Barlow so early in her re-emergence to the art scene.
“That’s an example of an artist on the rise,” he says.
October’s show will feature Africa’s most acclaimed contemporary artist, El Anatsui. His exhibition is titled “Gravity and Grace.” Anatsui uses found materials such as printing plates, milk tins and bottle caps to create his works. His pieces contain a historical aspect that tells a story or raises issues such as global consumerism.
“That’s the most exciting time, because not only staff but the community has a chance to meet the artists and to hear them speak at the lectures,” Doolittle says.
Annually, the art center has an Iowa artists exhibition where recommended Iowa artists display their work, sometimes through interactive displays. This year there was a performance art segment in which Shakespeare was performed in various locations of the center. Another artist created drawings of the horizon, where the sky meets Earth, and another segment featured printmakers.
“We make sure to recognize that local talent every year,” Doolittle says.
Other highlights of previous traveling exhibitions include an examination of art from that 1920s and 1930s that included Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” and the display of Jackson Pollock’s “Mural,” which is considered to be one of the most important modern American paintings.
Collection grows with the help of membership clubs, donations
The Des Moines Art Center’s collection grows each year with the help of several membership organizations as well as private and corporate contributions, estate endowments and grants including the Henry Luce and the Gardner and Florence Call Cowles foundations. John and Mary Pappajohn donated many of the sculptures in the downtown park and have helped pay for acquisitions of other pieces.
The art center also has an acquisitions team that determines what the collection needs and what pieces are no longer valuable in terms of the art center’s mission. These pieces may them be sold at auction or donated to another museum. The art center’s mission is to “engage diverse local and international audiences with the art of today through its museum and school, adding to the cultural record through collections and programs.”
The Des Moines Art Center Print Club, founded in 1981, commissions a new print by a living artist each season. The club has about 160 members. The print is produced in a limited edition with one being given to the art center and the others sold to members and then the general public.
Art Noir is a young professionals group with members ranging from 21 to 40 years of age. The club has about 400 members. The group offers its members ways to experience the art center in unique educational ways from exhibition tours to social gatherings to the Des Moines Art Center Big Hair Ball. Another recent activity was a dating match event based upon individual’s similarity in art tastes.
Other member organizations include the Book Club, which discusses books that relate to the center’s collections, and Contemporary Collectors, which gives novice and experienced collectors perspective about how to collect contemporary art and maintain an art collection. Members view private collections and can speak with experts in the field.
Outreach programs expand under Fleming’s direction
Each year, Fleming and other employees at the Des Moines Art Center create ways to expand the arts in to the community.
“I hope there’s a feeling of community participation, a more accessible, open, comfortable and engaging atmosphere surrounding the art center,” Fleming says.
The art center is well known for its educational programs that provide a wide range of art classes from printmaking to ceramics to cartooning to jewelry making for all ages from baby (with a parent or guardian) to seniors.
The art center also offers tours to fourth-graders in the Des Moines area so children can experience the arts. Transportation is paid for through the program, which has now grown to 3,000 students from seven area school districts.
Doolittle says the mission of the fourth-grade tours, which began 19 years ago, is to introduce children to an art museum and to help infuse art into the schools’ educational curriculums.
“For many children, it’s their first visit,” she writes. “Our hope is also they come back with their parents since we have free admission.”
What many may not know about are the outreach programs the art center has for at-risk youth, adult refugees, Alzheimer’s patients and more.
Art center employees work with various organizations — Lutheran Services in Iowa’s Refugee Connection Center, Achieving Maximum Potential, Children & Families of Iowa, Oakridge Neighborhood Services, Youth Emergency Services & Shelter, Merrill artists, Casady Alternative Center, Voices to be Heard and Mentor Iowa — in Des Moines to help youth and adults who, for a number of reasons, may be in difficult situations. About 200 children and adults take part in the program each year, which allows them to work one on one with a mentor.
Doolittle says the success stories for some of the children who have participated in these programs are amazing. One child wouldn’t speak, but after participating in the class, he opened up and grew confident enough to communicate with others and asked the director to look at his artwork.
“Sometimes the only way these kids feel they can communicate is through artwork, and it really helps them with self-esteem and problem solving,” Doolittle says.
As Fleming says, there’s any way or every way to be involved in the art center.