By Diana Nollen
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art is breaking new ground with its first exhibition devoted to the art of architecture.
It’s a two-tiered effort, with the main floor galleries showcasing eight downtown Cedar Rapids building projects in various stages of completion. A second floor gallery is housing 115 vintage postcards depicting the city’s core as it looked 100 years ago.
“This year, all our exhibitions tend to be focused on things local,” says Sean Ulmer, museum curator, citing last fall’s portraiture display, the winter/spring showing of works by local artists recently added to the museum’s permanent collection, as well as upcoming exhibits by potter Clary Illian of Ely, retired Mount Mercy art professor Charles Barth and Grant Wood’s friend and colleague, Marvin Cone.
“This summer we’re going to look at architecture,” says Ulmer, 48, a Cedar Rapidian since 2005. “The entire face of the downtown is going to change in the next few years. And it will be the face we look at for the next hundred years, because buildings don’t go up and down quickly.”
“It’s apparent as you drive through the city — everywhere you look there are orange barrels — that a tremendous amount of work is being done,” says architect Bradd Brown, 47, who has lived here since 1989. “It’s an interesting time for Cedar Rapids, from an architectural perspective.”
Brown had three watercolor views of the now-gone Sinclair Meatpacking Plant shown in the recent “Lure of the Local” exhibition, which now are part of the museum’s permanent collection. A principal with OPN Architects, he’s especially pleased to see the museum’s upcoming focus on the art of architecture.
“I’m passionate about art and love museums. The Art Institute in Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have rooms devoted to architecture, so it was exciting when Sean said they were doing this exhibit,” Brown says.
To narrow the scope, museum officials decided to focus on buildings of a civic nature, rather than private, commercial enterprises, Ulmer says. They looked at both sides of the river and zeroed in on the new U.S. Federal Courthouse, the Juvenile Justice Center, the Cedar Rapids Public Library, the Central Fire Station, the NewBo City Market, the riverside amphitheater, and the renovations to the Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center and the Cedar Rapids Convention Complex.
“Eight projects of differing functions, providing differing services to the community, and each of them had a different story to tell about what kind of opportunities the flood of 2008 offered to either rethink current buildings or to really rethink how to deliver services better,” Ulmer says. “In addition to having models and plans and renderings in the gallery, we’ll also be telling some of those stories, because (the flood) very much influenced the way those buildings look.”
The majority of the first-floor gallery space will feature the library. The museum’s history with that organization stretches back to 1905, when the Carnegie library opened on Third Avenue and Fifth Street SE and offered gallery space to the fledging Cedar Rapids Art Association. The library left that site in the mid-1980s, and the Carnegie structure was incorporated into a $10 million renovation and expansion, and reopened as the Museum of Art complex in 1989.
Ulmer says the library, displaced by the Floods of 2008, is coming home in a way, since its new structure is being built directly across Greene Square Park from the Carnegie building.
The exhibition will show the library’s rebuilding process from inception to completion, with drawings, sketches, documents and models. The other civic building projects will be represented by renderings and models.
“I have long believed that architects are all artists,” Ulmer says. “They are designing something, they are creating something. They don’t paint it themselves, they don’t etch it themselves, when one thinks of the more traditional artistic media. This is very much a team process. A building’s a much bigger thing than a painting on canvas. It requires all kinds of people with all kinds of expertise. The conception of the building as an entity, an object, is like sculpture on a grand scale.
“This is an artwork, however, that you go inside of physically, not just mentally,” Ulmer says. “It’s a piece of art that has to function in a certain way and has to provide some services or a place for workers or someplace for business to get done. And so there are different pressures on the creation of an architectural work of art than there are in other art forms, but it’s absolutely a work of art.”
“Architecture oftentimes is not a very public expression of art and design,” says Toby Olsen, 28, of Cedar Rapids, an intern architect with OPN Architects. He’ll lead a noon time “Art Bites” program on the library design June 6 at the art museum.
“Anytime you get the chance to give people a peek behind the curtain and show them the process from beginning to end is a great opportunity,” Olsen says. “It’s very exciting to me to give people the chance to see something they might not normally have access to.”
Many of these buildings, when completed, also will house public art, Ulmer adds. The riverside amphitheater, he notes, while not housed within four walls, has the entire downtown skyline as its backdrop. “If you want to look for art, you don’t need to look any further than that,” he says. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful positioning.”
The companion exhibition of vintage postcards, framed in groupings such as street scenes, theaters and commerce, offers a snapshot of the city center during the building boom 100 years ago.
The view will be “like stepping off a train,” Ulmer says. Some are photographs, others have a “painterly quality,” but all are scenes Cedar Rapidians of yore were proud to send to friends and relatives.
Ulmer calls the current building boom a “transformative moment.” OPN architects Brown and Olsen, whose firm is involved with the library, federal courthouse and convention complex shown in the exhibition, realize the city’s changing face stirs mixed emotions.
“A lot of people are disappointed in seeing signature historic buildings coming down, but a lot of preservation work is taking place,” Brown says, “like the preservation of the old federal courthouse by converting it to city offices and the preservation of the Veterans Memorial Building and the Paramount Theatre. … I’m glad to see we’re holding onto what we are holding onto.”
Building booms tend to go in cycles, and Olsen calls this one “a little bit of a catharsis.”
“We had the disaster and managed to cope with all of the issues that came with that,” he says. “We’re making headway. We have the chance to regain what we lost and the opportunity for building back smarter, building back better, showing everyone ‘we’re back, we’re here to stay, we made it through these tough times.’”
The new buildings are designed to be signatures, as well.
“The new skeletons are our chance to make some history and write our future,” Olsen says.
What: “Looking Forward, Looking Back: Architecture of Downtown Cedar Rapids, Then and Now”
- WHERE: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE
- WHEN: “Looking Forward: New Architecture in Downtown Cedar Rapids,” June 2 to Sept. 9; “Looking Back: Vintage Post Cards of Downtown Cedar Rapids,” now through Aug. 26
- HOURS: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
- COST: $5 adults; $4 ages 62 and over and college students; free ages 18 and under and museum members; free all ages 4 to 8 p.m. Thursdays
- OTHER EVENTS: Public preview reception, 5 to 7 p.m. Friday; Building Art: Family Fun Day at the CRMA, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday; Art Bites with Toby Olsen of OPN Architects, 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. June 6; Lego Landmarks, kids’ hands-on building activity, 4 to 7 p.m. June 14; architectural lecture by Cedar Rapids Historian Mark Hunter, 1 to 2 p.m.June 24
- DETAILS: Crma.org