Saving UNI Art: A Group of UNI Art Advocates are Fighting a War With the Past

Louise Nevelson, The Wind’s Bastinado from Façade, screenprint and collage, ed. 122/125, 1966 / Gift of Neva Flickinger Krohn, Chicago, IL / UNI 1986.032.

Louise Nevelson, The Wind’s Bastinado from Façade, screenprint and collage, ed. 122/125, 1966 / Gift of Neva Flickinger Krohn, Chicago, IL / UNI 1986.032.


Gallery of Art University of Northern Iowa

Friends of the UNI Permanent Art Collection and Gallery—an 18-member group of UNI alumni, students and other supporters of art—formed in August with a goal of preserving, expanding and increasing awareness of UNI's Permanent Art Collection, a storehouse of more than 4,000-piece cross section of art history from the 15th century to the present day.

The group's first campaign is to solicit $55,000 in funds to conserve 44 fragile works of art in danger of being lost to time. The list includes works by history's greatest artists: Picasso, Rembrandt, Matisse and Grant Wood.

"It can be heartbreaking to look at a work of art that may be beyond repair," said Darrell Taylor, UNI Art Gallery director and overseer of the Permanent Art Collection. "Or perhaps it's the case that you can stabilize it, but even after stabilization it can't be viewed in an exhibition setting."

Taylor and the Friends group have raised over $27,000 toward a 50/50 matching grant offered by the Institute for Museum and Library Services. The present mission is the result of a previous Institute for Museum and Library Services grant that funded a condition assessment of the Permanent Art Collection's approximately 2,400 works on paper. From that assessment, the list of 44 high-priority works was compiled based on each piece's condition as well as status within the collection.

"There is a risk of further damage if these works aren't conserved," Taylor said. "There is a continual decline that will happen for works of art that are not properly pH balanced from a conservator, not properly cleaned."

Many of the high-priority works are too fragile to be displayed openly. A piece by Alexander Calder is at risk of losing the artist's signature. Taylor points to a 1637 Rembrandt etching, "Young Man in a Velvet Cap," whose image is interrupted by adhesive bleeding through from the back of the piece. It severely distracts from appreciation of what made Rembrandt so great: his lines.

Henri Matisse, Baigneuse au collier, linoleum cut, 1869-1954 / UNI Department of Art Purchase / UNI 1961.020.

Henri Matisse, Baigneuse au collier, linoleum cut, 1869-1954 / UNI Department of Art Purchase / UNI 1961.020.

"I want observers to see the image as close to pristine as possible," Taylor said. "So they can really study what the artist did rather than what somebody that came after Rembrandt did."

Budgetary constraints make it impossible to perform the intensive conservation these pieces require, Taylor said. 

About a year ago, Jim, '71, and Santha, '84, Kerns, residents of Cedar Falls and longtime art advocates, participated in a tour of the art on campus led by Taylor. What they saw concerned them.

Edward J. Stevens, Jr., Moon-Lion, watercolor, gouache, graphite on paper, 1946 / Gift of Lois and Norman Jones, Davis, CA / UNI 1989.007.
Edward J. Stevens, Jr., Moon-Lion, watercolor, gouache, graphite on paper, 1946 / Gift of Lois and Norman Jones, Davis, CA / UNI 1989.007.

"Some of the sculptures that we looked at are in dire need of care," Santha said. "That's when we started asking Darrell questions: ‘How are you taking care of this?'"

"Darrell was pretty frank that the funds are just not there to do the work that needs to be done," Jim said. "We just thought, ‘It would be a shame to lose these pieces.'"

From there, Jim and Santha worked with the UNI Foundation, Taylor and others to launch a sustainable source of funding for the Permanent Art Collection, laying the groundwork for the Friends group. Jim and Santha said the support was overwhelming from the start.

"I haven't been surprised at all by the support because the need is so great," Jim said. "I've been pleased."

Jim has been making pottery for as many years as he has worked for John Deere, nearly 50. Santha taught art at Peet Middle School for nearly 20 years. Both are UNI graduates with longstanding ties to the university's art department.

Jim and Santha speak of art as an antidote to fruitless problem solving, the genesis of creative answers to society's most complex problems. They say the Permanent Art Collection is a vehicle to educate our community about art.

"It's our history," Jim said. "The art that's represented in these collections, and throughout the world, speaks to the history of mankind and the lessons we can learn."

George Grosz, Fancy Dress Ball, watercolor and ink on paper, 1929 / UNI Department of Art Purchase / UNI 1959.005.

George Grosz, Fancy Dress Ball, watercolor and ink on paper, 1929 / UNI Department of Art Purchase / UNI 1959.005.

Taylor says conservation will allow more art to be displayed for the public and even shared with other galleries.

"These works need to be conserved because it's important for the legacy of this collection," Taylor said. "So that not only students from academic year 2017-18 can appreciate and learn from a work of art, but students and scholars from 2047-48 can as well."

Darrell Taylor, Jim and Santha Kerns
Jim, '71, and Santha, '84, Kerns and Darrell Taylor