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Ickes: Off Limits among the Figge collection

From the Barb Ickes takes us inside these 'off limits' places series
  • 6 min to read

Art is much cleaner than nature.

At the downtown Davenport Figge Art Museum, there are no shelves of dusty rocks or bones or bugs. Up the hill at the Putnam Museum, the sprawling underground storage vaults are bursting at the seams with gritty collections of treasures.

The Figge is much newer, however, and its collection more refined.

Many of the Figge's thousands of paintings hang in neat rows from 12-foot-by-12-foot wire screens in a storage area behind the first-floor elevator. The screen walls can be pushed and pulled from their overhead rollers to access specific pieces, then pushed back into their tidy columns.

While the all-glass building on River Drive is only 12 years old, much of its contents have shared space for 100 years.

When the Davenport Municipal Art Gallery was built in 1925, it was to house the donated art collection of Charles A. Ficke, a prominent attorney and former Davenport mayor.

Even after all these years, pieces of Ficke's collection hold a mysterious lineage whose truths will one day be revealed.

Is it or isn't it?

Off Limits: Figge Art Museum

Andrew Wallace, manager of collections and exhibitions, shows a favorite painting, believed to connected to, Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck, in a storage area at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport.

The big, beautiful frame instantly caught my eye.

"That is one of our favorites," said Andrew Wallace, our Off Limits tour guide and the Figge's manager of collections and exhibitions. "It, along with its painting, are from the original Ficke collection. It is attributed to (Dutch master) Anthony van Dyck."


But wait. "Attributed," did he say?

"The surge in interest in master works led to many fakes," Wallace said. "The painting needs to be conserved, essentially authenticated."

The wire screen upon which the painting hangs was pulled from its storage row, and Wallace spoke at length of what is known about "St. Martin Dividing his Cloak with a Beggar." It depicts a rosy-cheeked man (the French patron saint, Martin) atop a handsome horse, sharing his blanket (cloak) with a man on a crutch (beggar).

The painting is a little more than 7 feet high and 5 feet wide and is believed to have been painted by someone who worked closely with van Dyck or who was strongly influenced by him and/or someone associated with his studio.

It is possible, Wallace said, that one artist painted the primary subject matter, St. Martin. And someone else painted the background. It was not unusual in many styles and periods for artists to specialize in backgrounds.

Its original frame is 7 feet tall and 9 feet wide, weighing in at a sturdy 350 pounds.

"The frame is incredibly heavy and fragile, which is a difficult combination," Wallace said. "If we're not going to put it in the gallery, it's best to leave it alone."

And the attributed van Dyck is not likely to get its day in front of a conservator anytime soon. The cleaning and conservation plans for Figge pieces are outlined on a roster, and priority is given to those that are to be included in upcoming exhibits.

"The piece is not signed, and that is part of the mystery," Wallace said. "While we may not have a van Dyck, we may have a very interesting painting, nonetheless."

Reputation for photos

On a Friday afternoon in the exhibition prep area of the Figge storage wing, Assistant Registrar Joshua Johnson was using gloved hands to flatten a lithograph.

"This is a very recent gift," Wallace said of the poster-sized piece in front of Johnson. "People frequently send us rolled materials, so we must handle it, flatten it and, in most cases, mat it."

Gifts and bequests are the bread and butter of collections in museums of all size. While some pieces are purchased, many more are donated.

"I'd like to get into a pattern of exhibiting new acquisitions and gifts — not only to show appreciation to those folks who give these gifts but also to show the public the collections we are building," Wallace said.

A real up-and-comer for the Figge is its growing photography collection.

"We acquired 170 pieces last year through two extraordinary gifts," Wallace said, going on to explain that a New York photography dealer, Brent Sikkema, has connections to a Figge supporter. The northern Illinois native first bolstered the museum's photo holdings in 2007.

"It was lucky for us," Wallace said. "It's a foundational collection to us. The photos include many important names."

Adding to it, the Figge recently fell into another bit of luck.

A Minnesota woman, helping her mother find a home for a collection of photochromes, thought she was calling the University of Iowa. But she got Wallace at the Figge.

"I told her, 'We would be happy to have those works,'" he said, describing the pieces as photo-based works that have been colorized.

Popular before TV and radio, the circa 1900 images allowed regular people to see the world.

The two sets of gifts ultimately will be part of an exhibit.

"By exhibiting, word gets out that you're serious," Wallace said. "We build on that reputation by buying some pieces, as well."

Museums cannot possibly accept every gift that is offered, so they have to be selective, and they have to know what they're getting into.

"Collectors are spot on and know exactly what they have," he said. "Oftentime, the casual flea marketers think they've found the Holy Grail."

Figge favorites

Off Limits: Figge Art Museum

A cartoon in ink made by George Schreiber in 1940 of artist Grant Wood is preserved in a tray in a storage area at the Figge Art Museum.

One claim to fame for the Figge is its Grant Wood collection, including his only self-portrait.

An Iowa-born painter, Wood is best known for one of America's most famous paintings, American Gothic. The woman in the painting is Wood's sister, Nan Wood Graham, and she donated her brother's personal effects to the Davenport Museum of Art, now the Figge, prior to her passing in 1990.

While the Art Institute of Chicago has American Gothic, the Figge has much more, including personal correspondence that has been digitized. Originals of letters and other documents are stored in a mezzanine above the Figge's main storage space — in acid-free boxes and out of public reach. The round spectacles he wore in his self-portrait are on exhibit, and his easel stands in storage.

His sister also donated the brooch she is wearing in American Gothic.

On tables near the shelves that hold the Wood originals are books and other personal items that were part of Nan Wood Graham's bequest, including furniture that was in her brother's home at the time of his death.

"It's difficult to unpack who he was," Wallace said of Wood. "There is great debate over his intellect and politics. We don't know whether he read these books. They may have been gifts that he didn't read.

"Nan was very protective of him. He was like a God to her. She never would permit anything that might defame him."

A self-taught artist, Wood did not go to college, but he spent considerable time in the classroom as a teacher. Cancer claimed him at 51 in 1942.

"A good and argued question is: How would he have survived as an artist?" Wallace said. "Dying when he did added to the mystique of him, rather than detracting from it."

Some of Wood's furniture will be loaned to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York for an upcoming exhibition. When objects leave the museum, the group doing the borrowing must insure them.

"American Gothic will be a part of that exhibition, too," Wallace said. "I prefer our self-portrait, because it tells us more about the artist than American Gothic."

Painting in ruin

Off Limits: Figge Art Museum

A painting by Juan Roderigues Xuares, center, hangs on sliding wire mesh wall in a storage area at the Figge Art Museum.

Off Limits: Figge Art Museum

Andrew Wallace, manager of collections and exhibitions, shows a painting damaged by the artist's painting technique in a storage area at the Figge Art Museum.

Condition is to a curator what location is to a Realtor.

So it was puzzling to see Wallace roll out a wire storage screen containing a badly torn painting to use as an example of one of his favorites.

"It is a favorite from an instructional standpoint," he began. "The artist in this case is entirely to blame."

The painting is of the French Barbizon School (a realism movement of mostly rural landscapes) and depicts a forest path. Unfortunately, it also looks like someone put a fist through it.

"The artist built layer upon layer of paint and varnish, creating a brittle surface," Wallace lamented. "The canvas is at the mercy of the varnish layer."

The combination of an artist who was heavy handed with the varnish and the painting being stored in imperfect conditions have led to its demise.

"The Davenport Museum of Art didn't have climate control," he said of the painting's longtime home. "The restoration estimate came back at $25,000, and it wouldn't look original. It can't."

Iowa City renters

For most of its life, the Figge collection has had a roommate.

Most of the collection belonging to the University of Iowa has occupied a large chunk of the Figge's storage space since the flood of 2008 led to the permanent evacuation of the University of Iowa Museum of Art. The university pays rent, and its artwork uses much of the wire screen space, along with shelving and floor space.

The Iowa Board of Regents recently approved a plan to build a new university museum, which now is scheduled to open in 2020.

In addition to the 4,000 objects in the Figge collection, in other words, the keepers of the treasures also must see to the safety and security of others' enormously valuable artwork.

Wallace, who has worked in museums since 1980, said the secret to safe handling is to not let the fear get to you.

"I've held pieces in my hands more valuable than American Gothic," he said. "There is a leap of faith you have to take. In that case, I was surrounded by armed guards.

"In one case, I was holding a moon rock. The guards keep people away, including the press who are wanting a closeup.

"Our mission, after all, is not to keep these things in storage, but to share them with the world."