By the end of the Second World War, there were few American institutions with good art schools. The University of Iowa’s art program was among the best of the small pack. Grant Wood had served on the faculty from 1934 to 1942. Arguing that students should learn from the best art of their own time, Lester Longman, director of the UI Art Department during these years, acquired some of the twentieth century’s most innovative works, including Joan Miró’s A Drop of Dew Falling from the Wing of a Bird Awakens Rosalie Asleep in the Shade of a Cobweb and Max Beckmann’s Karneval. In 1951, when Jackson Pollock’s 1943 masterpiece Mural—donated to the university by dealer and art impresario Peggy Guggenheim—arrived at the university, the painting cemented the school’s reputation as one of the most progressive art institutions in the country.

In 1962, the university’s dynamic collection promised to reach new heights when Owen and Leone Elliott of Cedar Rapids made a definitive offer of their art collection. Their twelve hundred objects included paintings and works on paper by an impressive array of European and American modernists such as Pablo Picasso and Gabriele Münter, as well as pieces of antique silver and jade, all of which they were ready to part with on the condition that a museum be built to house their gift and the university’s extensive collection. Seven years later, thanks to the generosity of two thousand individuals and businesses, the University of Iowa’s Museum of Art was established in 1969 with artist and collector Ulfert Wilke as the first director.

Throughout the next 40 years, the UI Museum of Art would serve as a hub for artistic endeavors and creative events. The collection expanded in major ways. The museum acquired works by groundbreaking contemporary artists such as Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas. A donation by C. Maxwell and Elizabeth M. Stanley of nearly 600 African art objects in 1984 and 1990 established the UI Museum of Art as a mecca for African art studies. The collection enabled UI to institute one of the first PhD programs in this area and led to the 1989 creation of the Project for the Advanced Study of Art and Life in Africa (PASALA) with support from the Stanley Foundation. Additionally, the museum brought in a stream of famous and aspiring artists; UI faculty and students during this time included Miriam Schapiro, Charles Ray, Hans Breder, and Ana Mendieta. The UI Museum of Art quickly earned recognition as one of the nation's finest university art museums.

In June 2008, the museum’s objects were permanently evacuated during major flooding of the Iowa River. Working nearly nonstop, staff and volunteers saved the art collection, but the museum building was deemed unsuitable to hold fine art after the flood. Unlike the way it had with other buildings on the university campus, FEMA denied funds to build an entirely new facility away from the river. Thus began the pursuit to find a new location for the UI Museum of Art and funds for the new building.

Being without a building brought new opportunities, though, compelling the museum to find new, innovative ways to share art. The collection was divided among several locations: the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, offered space in its state-of-the-art building for storage and exhibitions in 2009, and later that year, the museum opened a new temporary on-campus art gallery in the Iowa Memorial Union. The museum organized traveling exhibitions and loaned artworks to venues across the world. Even without a permanent building, Pollock’s Mural reached 2,776,544 viewers from April 2009 to August 2021. Within the state of Iowa, local foundations supported both small-scale traveling exhibitions and a thriving school-visit program that reached nearly 85,000 students in 32 Iowa counties in its 12 years of operation.

After an extensive site development and design process, a new art museum construction project was proposed for a site on university property adjacent to the Main Library. This on-campus location ensures that the museum, and its notable collection, are fully accessible to guests from around the region and the world while remaining central to the student experience and allowing for collaboration with other campus entities. In June 2016, the Iowa Board of Regents permitted the plan to proceed. Schematic designs by BNIM and a $50 million project budget, combining private support and University of Iowa facility corporation bonds, were approved in August 2017.

In the fall of 2017, Muscatine, Iowa, natives Richard (Dick) and Mary Jo Stanley committed $10 million to support the building campaign for the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Following approval by the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, the museum officially became the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art on April 1, 2018.  The Stanleys’ lead gift promoted the $25 million My Museum capital campaign that would help with the construction costs of the new building. Over five hundred households donated to the campaign and surpassed the $25 million private giving goal.

In July 2018, Dr. Lauren Lessing became the Stanley Museum of Art’s ninth director, leading the museum in this exciting next chapter of its 50-year history. The ceremonial groundbreaking for the new building was held on June 7, 2019, and Davenport, Iowa–based Russell Construction Company began their work soon after. The building was completed in December 2021. With all the parts of the collection soon to be reunited under one roof, the new Stanley Museum of Art opened its doors to the public on August 26, 2022.

L to R:

Old Museum of Art construction, 1968.

Sculpture court of Old Museum of Art, ca. 1990s

Aerial view of Old Museum of Art, May 23, 1969 - F.W. Kent Collection (or Hawkeye Yearbooks Collection), University Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries.

Kinetic fountain (Pol Bury, 1969) in Old Museum of Art sculpture court, 1982.


  • 1856

    The University of Iowa offers art as an "instrumental drawing" class through the Department of Civil Engineering.

  • 1892

    Independent studio classes in "art drawing" enter the curriculum.

  • 1906

    The establishment of the Department of Fine Arts formalizes art training and education.

  • Several geometric bird-like figures surround a central creature who looks upward with arms raised.

    Martha Wright Ranney of Iowa City establishes the Mark Ranney Memorial Fund in her will to honor her late husband who taught in the medical school. The bequest continues to earn the university annual funds to purchase works of art, which over the years have included Joan Miró's A Drop of Dew Falling from the Wing of a Bird Awakens Rosalie Asleep in the Shade of a Cobweb (1939) and Max Beckmann's Karneval triptych (1943).

  • 1929

    The School of Fine Arts is founded within the College of Liberal Arts to teach art, music, drama, and art history.

  • Man with white shirt, holding a pipe, standing in front of painting

    Lester Longman joins the university to chair the Department of Graphic and Plastic Arts, separate from art history. Inspired by the "Iowa Idea" he consolidates art and art history together into one pioneering Department of Art in 1938, now the School of Art and Art HistoryThe innovative "Iowa Idea" of bringing artists and scholars together in an academic context was first formulated in the 1920s by University of Iowa President Walter Jessup and Graduate Dean Carl Seashore


  • 1939

    Lester Longman inaugurates summer art festivals at the Iowa Memorial Union, bringing world-famous works of art to Iowa and creating another conduit for donations and university acquisitions of famous works.

  • 1948

    A show of masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is shipped to The University of Iowa with armed guards.

  • woman holding dog next to a man, standing in front of art

    Lester Longman's annual purchasing treks to New York City pay off when arts impresario and gallery-owner Peggy Guggenheim donates Jackson Pollock's Mural, painted for Guggenheim's Manhattan apartment in 1943. Mural, first offered to the university in 1948, arrives in 1951.

  • 1959

    Frank Seiberling, head of the art department at Ohio State, comes to the University of Iowa to succeed Lester Longman.

  • Owen and Leone Elliott outside the old museum entrance, ca. 1970
    March 1962

    Owen and Leone Elliott of Cedar Rapids offer the University of Iowa their collection of 1,200 masterworks, including jade, silver, prints, and paintings by Picasso, Feininger, Matisse, de Chirico, and Chagall. The gift includes the challenge that the university must build a museum.

  • architectural model of old museum of art
    April 1962

    The University of Iowa and the UI Foundation Board announce the challenge campaign to raise $1.2 million to build a museum to house the collection and make it accessible to students.

  • four men with ceremonial shovel at museum groundbreaking
    October 1966

    Ground is broken for the University of Iowa Museum of Art, planned with four wings surrounding an enclosed, interior courtyard gallery.

  • balding man with moustache, beard, and glasses wearing a blazer - standing in an art gallery
    July 1968

    Artist and collector Ulfert Wilke takes the job as the museum's first director.

  • art museum gallery with the words "Elliott Gallery" on the wall
    May 5, 1969

    The University of Iowa Museum of Art opens, featuring the Elliott collection and a week-long celebration. The museum brings most of the university's tremendous artworks, collected over generations, together under one roof.

  • man and woman standing in a museum gallery, the walls have the words "Gelman Collection"
    December 1969

    Webster B. and Gloria Gelman donate the first of several collections of Pre-Columbian art

  • 1970

    Museum donors and benefactors organize the Friends of the Museum of Art group to support the museum and provide programming advice

  • November 1971

    Roy and Lucille Carver, Sr., of Muscatine, Iowa, give a gift for expansion of the museum

  • July 1972

    The Elliotts' friend, Jane G. Alcock of San Francisco, gives the museum the Alcock Silver Collection.

  • portrait of man with beard and glasses
    December 1972

    Webster and Gloria Gelman announce their gift of prints by world-renowned printmaker Mauricio Lasansky, University of Iowa art professor.

  • woman standing with hands on hips, between a man and woman, speaking with the man
    April 1975

    Jan K. Muhlert is appointed museum director

  • group of four people in a museum gallery, the words "Carver Gallery" are on the wall
    September 1976

    The Carver Wing opens, adding 13,000 square feet to the museum with the Lasansky Room, other gallery space, and areas for restoration and storage. The addition makes it easier for students to come to the museum to study the collection.

  • man and woman in an art gallery surrounded by African art objects

    C. Maxwell and Elizabeth M. Stanley of Muscatine, Iowa, promise a major gift of African art, establishing a locus for African arts studies with an ultimate collection of over 600 pieces donated to the museum.

  • December 1979

    Eugene and Ina Schnell give 360 Pre-Columbian art objects to the museum

  • August 1980

    Bruce W. Chambers becomes museum director

  • smiling woman with short dark hair standing next to a ceramic pot
    April 1981

    The exhibition Centering on Contemporary Clay: American Ceramics from the Joan Mannheimer Collection celebrates the start of continuing gifts from Joan Mannheimer of Des Moines, Iowa.

  • Black and white portrait of man with beard and moustache wearing dark blazer, white shirt, and dark tie
    July 1983

    Robert C. Hobbs becomes museum director

  • A dark-haired boy wearing a red, burgundy, and pink argyle sweater, and old-fashioned lace-up football trousers. He holds a football under his right arm and looks forward. Behind him are a wooded landscape and blue sky.
    August 1984

    Mel and Carole Blumberg of Clinton, Iowa, and Edwin B. Green of Iowa City, Iowa, give the museum Grant Wood's painting Plaid Sweater, a portrait of Mel, completed in 1931.

  • A black and white portrait of a Black man wearing a dark jacket with a white shirt and tie.
    July 1986

    The museum receives the first of three gifts from the Dr. Meredith Saunders Collection, which is the largest collection of African art in the museum created by a Black American.

  • textile with pattern

    Art school faculty member and printmaker Keith Achepohl begins making annual donations of African art and master prints to the museum

  • 1987

    Fred Woodard serves as acting director from 1987–1988

  • 36 small squares painted different colors, with a handkerchief over each square, resembling a quilt.
    March 1988

    Museum patron Edwin Green dies, leaving the museum a bequest to be matched two-for-one to create an acquisition fund. The campaign for matching funds ends in May 1992, establishing the Edwin B. Green American Art Acquisition Fund and the Museum of Art Acquisitions Endowment Fund.

  • Black and white portrait of a smiling woman with very short dark hair wearing a dark top and many strands of African beads

    Mary H. Kujawski Roberts becomes museum director

  • Man with glasses wearing a white shirt and dark tie stands looking at viewer with his elbow resting on a pedestal supporting a sculpture of a bearded man's head
    September 1992

    Stephen Prokopoff becomes museum director

  • man and woman dancing
    May 1994

    The museum celebrates its 25th anniversary.

  • Woman and man standing among pre-Columbian figurative sculptures

    Drs. Gerald and Hope Solomons give the museum their collection of Pre-Columbian and Native American art.

  • February 2000

    Howard Collinson becomes museum director

  • 2008

    Pamela White is named interim museum director

  • Aerial image of museum in flood waters
    June 2008

    The museum staff and numerous volunteers save the entire art collection as the Iowa River floods the arts campus. The flood leaves the museum building standing but no longer suitable for a fine art collection or exhibitions.

  • Two girls leaning over a table looking at framed artwork

    The museum begins a K–12 outreach program that brings artwork to classrooms across Iowa. 604 participants are served the first year. Over the years, the Stanley School Programs reached as many as 65,350 participants a year, spanning 21 towns in 15 counties.

  • museum gallery hallway

    A Legacy for Iowa: Pollock's Mural and Modern Masterworks at the University of Iowa Museum of Art opens at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa. In addition to Jackson Pollock's Mural, Max Beckmann's Karneval and works by Picasso, Matisse, Feininger, and Wood are part of the exhibition.

  • museum gallery with artworks on walls and sculptures and a bench in the middle of the space
    September 2009

    A survey of more than 250 museum artworks and a study room open in the Richey Ballroom of the Iowa Memorial Union, becoming an on-campus visual classroom.

  • 2010

    Willard L. Boyd, former president of the University of Iowa and director of the Field Museum, becomes interim museum director

  • man with arms folded across chest in front of a red painting

    Sean O'Harrow becomes museum director

  • A large abstract painting with swirls of yellow, pink, teal, and light greenish blue, amid longer, vertical, curved black lines that have a quality of dance-like movement.
    March 2014

    Following a two-year conservation and analysis process, Jackson Pollock's Mural goes on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum as a single-work exhibition. The painting is seen by over 300,000 visitors.

  • text that reads "Jackson Pollock's 'Mural': Energy Made Visible"
    April 2015

    Jackson Pollock's Mural: Energy Made Visible, an exhibition curated by David Anfam and organized by the UI Museum of Art, opens at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Venice, Italy.

  • January 2017

    James A. Leach is named interim museum director.

  • April 2018

    Steve McGuire, chair of the UI School of Art & Art History, is named acting museum director.

  • woman with short hair, glasses, and a plaid jacket
    July 2018

    Lauren Lessing becomes museum director.

  • Ceremonial groundbreaking, three people holding shovels and smiling
    June 7, 2019

    The University of Iowa holds a public ceremonial groundbreaking for the new UI Stanley Museum of Art.

  • Empty construction site with UI power plant smoke stacks in the background
    September 2019

    Construction begins on the new museum building.

  • east front of museum with sky reflected in the glass
    March 2022

    Museum staff move into the new Stanley Museum of Art building.

  • Museum staff pose in front of Jackson Pollock's "Mural" following installation.
    August 2022

    Jackson Pollock's Mural returns to the museum after a nine-year world tour. The 8-by-20 foot painting traveled more than 20,000 miles to 14 venues on trucks, cargo planes, and boats, and was viewed by over 2.7 million people.

  • Aerial view of Gibson Square Park with large white tent and big crowd of people
    August 26, 2022

    The Stanley Museum of Art reopens with a public dedication ceremony followed by a weekend-long celebration.