As a New Museum Takes Shape, Donors Rise to the Occasion

By Josh O'Leary
An Iowa City couple's $1 million gift is the latest philanthropic cornerstone for the future UI Stanley Museum of Art, which reaches $22M in fundraising.
UI Stanley Museum of Art Rendering Image: BNIM An architect’s rendering of the new Stanley Museum of Art, which broke ground in 2019 and will open in 2022.

Where cranes, backhoes, and a half-block construction crater now stand, Craig (75JD) and Nancy Willis (77BA, 80JD) see a future Iowa landmark that will inspire new generations of art lovers.

The longtime university benefactors and Iowa City community leaders have committed $1 million toward the building campaign for the new University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, which is set to open in 2022. The project broke ground in 2019 near the corner of Burlington and Front streets, adjacent to the UI Main Library and Gibson Square. In recognition of the Willises' support, the plaza entrance of the new museum will be named for the couple.

Craig and Nancy Willis Nancy and Craig Willis

"We've really developed an appreciation for art as a result of our relationship with the institution, the collection, and the people at the museum," says Nancy Willis. "This is an opportunity for us to express our appreciation for that enrichment."

The Willises' gift is the latest milestone in the Stanley Museum of Art's ongoing My Museum building campaign. To date, more than 480 donors from 28 states have made donations totaling more than $22 million. That includes the lead gift of $10 million from the family of the late Richard (63MS) and Mary Jo Stanley of Muscatine, for whom the new museum is named, and a $1.5 million donation from Chris (94BBA) and Suzy DeWolf of Cedar Rapids to name the gallery that will house Jackson Pollock's Mural. All told, museum leaders hope to raise $25 million of the new museum's $50 million price tag through private donations.

"This is a university that has cultivated a love of the arts among its students, and that love persists among its alumni," says Stanley Museum of Art Director Lauren Lessing. "Nobody I've spoken to questions the need for this art museum; they all understand how important it's going to be for the future of the university and for the art community here in Iowa City and beyond. Their gifts are helping to make this building a reality."

Since the flood of 2008 shuttered the original museum, the UI's 16,500-piece art collection—which is valued at more than $500 million and includes works by Grant Wood, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse—has been without a permanent home. The new museum, designed by BNIM, a Des Moines-based architecture firm, will be a 60,000-square-foot facility with 16,500 square feet of gallery space. The three-story building will be situated four feet above the 500-year flood plain and feature below-ground parking, visual classrooms, and an outdoor sculpture garden.

The Willises have become two of the museum's most steadfast supporters since first getting involved with the organization in the 1970s. The couple, who work as real estate attorneys, have served prominent roles on numerous boards and committees for the museum, in addition to showing support for Hancher, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and UI Healthcare, among many other university and community organizations. This past fall, the UI presented the Willises with its top honor—a Distinguished Alumni Award for their outstanding contributions to the university.

The Willises credit the university for sparking their lifelong passion for the visual arts—first as museum patrons, then as art collectors themselves. Over the years, they have built relationships with art dealers met through the UI and visited many of the world's top art galleries. They say their travels have only deepened their appreciation for the university's cultural offerings.

"The pieces in the university's collection are, in a way, old friends," says Craig Willis. "And it will be nice to be able to visit those old friends again. We're also excited about new acquisitions and traveling shows, which will be another great aspect of the new museum."

Raised on a farm in northwest Iowa, Nancy Willis says her first exposure to the art world, like many students, came at the UI. She's hopeful that the new museum and its accessible location in the heart of campus will spark the same interest in the next generation.

"We're establishing a venue that will expand horizons, expand the way we look at things, and expand life experiences," Nancy says. "This will be something that students will take with them wherever they go around the world."

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