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University of Iowa given go-ahead to build new art museum

| Sunday, June 9, 2013, 8:30 p.m.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Iowa received permission to develop plans for a new museum to store its premier collection of fine art, which has largely been stored off-campus since a 2008 flood.

The university said it will study a range of potential sites for the museum near its campus in Iowa City and options for funding the building through donations and partnerships with the private sector. Although the project is years from completion, the approval for planning by the Iowa Board of Regents gives hope that the university's art collection of 12,400 paintings, sculptures and other objects will one day return to campus.

The lack of space for the collection, built up over decades and considered among the best held by a U.S. university, has been one of the results of a historic 2008 flood that damaged the UI Museum of Art and 21 other campus buildings. University workers were able to evacuate the artworks, which have been housed largely in the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, 60 miles away, and in other places on campus since then.

The collection includes a famous Jackson Pollock painting and has an overall estimated value of more than $500 million.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency ruled in 2010 that the museum, which sustained millions of dollars in damage to its utility systems and lower level, was not more than 50 percent damaged and therefore qualified for federal funding only for renovations, instead of to be rebuilt outside the floodplain. The university said it could not find any insurers who would cover the collection at the museum's site on the Iowa River. FEMA rejected multiple appeals by the university, including its final one in March, for funding to rebuild elsewhere.

“Unsuccessful, but at least we had determination,” university senior vice president and treasurer Doug True told regents during a meeting in Iowa City.

The regents voted unanimously to give the university permission to begin planning for the new museum. The board approved a $2.5 million project to repair flood damage in the current building so it can be used for other academic purposes. Part of the building is being used as temporary space for music programs, and the university will decide in the future how to use the rest of the space.

True said the university plans to pursue a “public-private partnership” for the new building, which could be used to display the collection and for other purposes.

He said the university would soon send out “a request for information” to developers who may have ideas on where the building could be located and how it might be financed and operated. More detailed plans for its design and budget would be approved later.

“We want to continue ... to pursue that process where people in our community and anywhere in Iowa can help find the place, the land and an imaginative way where we might work with the private sector to develop something that would be a multi-use facility,” he said.

He said the building must be easily accessible to students and professors and include the security and climate that are required to store art. The university has not set a price tag for the building and told the regents that the amount of university funding provided for construction and operation will depend “upon the nature of the financial ownership.” In the past, the school has said a new museum could cost $75 million.

In its proposal to regents, the university said that storing the collection in Davenport had led to “very limited” access for students, teachers, scholars and the public. While FEMA grants have covered the storage costs to date, they will eventually become a “financial drain” on the university when the funding runs out, the university said.

Wednesday's action comes as flooding along the Iowa River has required the university to again evacuate the old museum, which was designed by renowned architect Max Abramovitz and opened in 1969. The university has erected flood barriers that are expected to keep the building and others dry.

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