Opening May 4, 2024, at the Stanley Museum of Art, this exhibition celebrates Keith Haring's visits to Iowa City in 1984 and 1989, when he completed a mural at Horn Elementary School.
Keith Haring (1958-1990), one of the most influential graffiti artists of the 1980s, made two memorable visits to Iowa City in 1984 and 1989.
In partnership with the Museum, Haring spent several days at Horn Elementary school as an artist-in-residence conducting workshops and painting a public mural during his first visit. He returned in 1989 to create a mural in the story well of the school library as a gift to the school which is the focus of the exhibition. The exhibition title, "To my friends at Horn: Keith Haring and Iowa City," is inspired by the greeting Haring used in letters to the Horn Elementary school children he corresponded with over the years.
The Stanley Museum of Art has partnered with Horn Elementary School and The Haring Foundation to preserve the mural as the school undergoes construction. The mural was recently moved from the school, whilst attached to a 4000-pound concrete wall, by conservation experts. It is now safely stored at the museum where it will remain until it is reinstalled at the school after construction is complete in 2025.
Keith Haring in Iowa City
In 1984, Haring made his first visit at the invitation of Colleen Ernst, an art teacher at Horn Elementary School. Ernst introduced her fifth and sixth graders to Haring’s work and sent the artist a postcard. A correspondence between Haring and the grade schoolers followed, culminating in a visit from the artist who wore sneakers, jeans and t-shirts—much like the students did.
In March 1984, Horn Elementary School hosted Haring as an artist-in-residence in partnership with the Stanley Museum of Art (then called the University of Iowa Museum of Art). They collaborated on an array of programs collectively called “Keith Haring in Iowa City”. Haring conducted musical chairs drawing workshops, dashed off chalkboard drawings in classrooms, publicly painted a mural that was incorporated into an exhibition of his work at the museum and delivered a public lecture. The museum encouraged members of the community to participate in this “unique learning experience”.
A staunch believer that children were his toughest audience, Haring stayed in touch with his young friends in Iowa City even as his international fame grew. He finally returned to Horn Elementary School on May 22, 1989, to create the mural. On what was anointed Keith Haring Day, the students welcomed back “the most wonderful artist in the universe.” Haring always drew inspiration from the boundless imaginations of children and, in this case, the stories on the bookshelves surrounding him also provided models.
Keith Haring posing with his mural at Horn Elementary School, 1989. Photo by Rodney White. © Keith Haring Foundation
Preserving the mural
The Stanley Museum of Art stepped in to facilitate the painting’s safe removal from the school while the building is undergoing renovation. A team of art conservation experts examined the work and found the seemingly simple project to be significantly more complex.
The mural is not painted directly on the wall. Instead, it is secured to the wall with a complex system of fasteners attached directly to concrete blocks. Experts determined that carefully removing the 4000-pound section of the concrete block wall with the mural attached to it was the safest course of action. A rigid frame supported the mural while it was sawed free from the rest of the wall and transported to the Museum.
The exhibition not only celebrates Keith Haring's work but also showcases new art conservation methods. This expanded scope reflects the growing importance of the field of art conservation in today's world and the new frontiers it is exploring. The Stanley Museum of Art aims to be a leader in conservation techniques and to remind viewers that art is not only meant to be enjoyed, but also preserved for future generations.
Haring’s legacy in Iowa City
Keith Haring’s mural at Horn Elementary School is a poignant manifestation of one community’s embrace of the arts and a love letter from an artist who found acceptance in an adopted community. Not long before his second Iowa City trip, Haring was diagnosed with AIDS; this was not public until after his visit.
“It’s really incredible to me that the school took the initiative to institute a discussion about AIDS — mostly because of the students’ contact with (and caring for) me,” Haring wrote to his friends at Horn that fall, “It makes me proud I had the courage to talk about it in the first place. Education is the key to stopping this thing!”.
Keith Haring working on his mural at Horn Elementary School, 1989. Photo by Rodney White. © Keith Haring Foundation
Much like the Stanley, the mural embodies the power of education, the reciprocity of inspiration and the role that creative artists play in helping us to see one another and know ourselves.
Students posing in front of Keith Haring’s mural in progress at Horn Elementary School, 1989. Image courtesy of Colleen Ernst © Keith Haring Foundation