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Art museum looking to expand

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The Davenport Museum of Art was formed in 1925 and moved to its present site in 1963. Additions were built in 1967 and 1972. Museum officials say the museum has outgrown its space, and they're looking for a new home.

DAVENPORT -- The Davenport Museum of Art opened in October 1925 near downtown Davenport, and that location is being considered as an option for its third home.

Since 1994, there has been talk of doubling the 30,000 square feet of the museum on West 12th Street, near Division Street. However, cost comparisons between renovation ($8.7 million) and a new building ($11 million) have led to consideration of new construction.

The Davenport Municipal Art Gallery was the first city-owned museum in Iowa, and it came into being after a state law was passed authorizing cities of 50,000 or more to operate municipal galleries.

C.A. Ficke, an attorney and former Davenport mayor, offered his collection of 334 paintings to the city if it would provide a building to house them.

The old Battery ``B'' armory building on 5th Street was renovated for the purpose, and Davenport publisher E.P. Adler headed the board of trustees for the next 10 years. Henry Neuman, a Davenport attorney, is current president of the board.

Before the gallery was established, art classes were offered at the Davenport Academy of Sciences (now the Putnam Museum), and the Tri-City Art League brought notable artists in to conduct studio classes.

Serious talk of establishing a gallery began after 1913, and Mr. Ficke made his generous offer in the early '20s.

The present museum opened in 1963, and the Putnam Museum was erected next door the following year. The area began to be known as Museum Hill. A Beaux Arts annex was built in 1967, and the Wiese Fine Arts building was added to the museum in 1972.

From Mr. Ficke's 334 paintings, the holdings have grown to 3,200 pieces of art, but present space allows for exhibiting just 200 at a time.

The works encompass seven major areas:

-- The American collection, with works from the colonial period to 1945.

-- The Regionalist collection, with a strong focus on the work of Grant Wood.

-- The Mexican Colonial collection, with C.A. Ficke's acquisitions of 17th- and 18th-century works from New Spain.

-- The Haitian collection, started and enhanced by the gifts of Dr. Walter Neiswanger.

-- The Asian collection of Japanese woodblock prints and Chinese scrolls and prints plus Oriental decorative objects.

-- The European collection of works from the 15th to 18th century.

-- The Contemporary collection of works created since 1945.

Besides augmenting, caring for and exhibiting its collections, the museum brings in traveling exhibitions, supports a strong program of arts education and classes, works with area schools, sponsors public lectures, operates a gift shop and plans social events.

The Friends of the Davenport Museum of Art, the Beaux Arts and the Volunteer Guild are auxiliary groups that support the museum.

A new museum should increase the museum's visibility and accessibility to residents on both sides of the river, increase potential for major growth in attendance, and give a chance for a building design that will be a signature architectural landmark for the city of Davenport.

About 40,000 people visit the museum yearly in its present location, and that number increases with a blockbuster show like the Grant Wood exhibit of 1996. However, drop-in visitors are a rarity.

As Mr. Neuman puts it, ``We're way out on the perimeter, maybe beyond it.''

Originally, the expanded museum was to have opened in 1999, a year before its 75th anniversary; but if a new building is constructed, that opening will coincide with the anniversary.

So far, a commitment of $6 million toward the project has been made. The city of Davenport has been asked to increase its contribution, and key private supporters have indicated they would cover the cost difference between remodeling and new construction.

-- By Julie Jensen (January 22, 1998)

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