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Swan song as an ode to Iowa

3/1/2023

Jeff Fleming is retiring from his directorship at the Des Moines Art Center in late April. That makes the new 75th anniversary exhibition his swan song. Because he came to Des Moines a quarter-century ago as a curator, we asked him how involved he was with the show, whose curators were Laura Burkhalter and Mia Laufer. 

“We started planning this two years ago. I said I wanted a focus on the community that created and has supported the Art Center. This was intentionally named a ‘center’ rather than a ‘museum,’ because founders primarily wanted it to be place for the community to come together. It was my intention that this show focus on the Iowa community that fostered that sense of togetherness and the artists who were a part of that community. After that, Laura and Mia did all the imagining, editing and heavy lifting to create the exhibition.” 

This writer grew up three blocks from the center. Pre-teen, I scaled the walls of the Saarinen wing to sneak into concerts by Dave Brubaker and Stan Getz because I couldn’t afford the ticket prices. (I made $1 a week picking up daily trash at the AC Ice Cream store directly across the street from the center.) As a journalist/observer of the center since 1988, I have criticized the lack of attention to Iowa artists in the years before Fleming became director. Does this show give the lie to that?  

“I think you answered your own question. Laura and Mia did that for me, whether they were trying to or not. The biggest change in my 25 years here, and 18 as director, has been about giving a voice to those who previously lacked one — women voices, queer voices, etc.”

Tilly Woodward is a Grinnell artist who grew up on a farm and famously paints photo-realistic still life portraits of things that grow in the earth. This 75th anniversary show features two portraits, exponentially larger than Woodward’s usual works, of AIDS victims when that disease was a death sentence. 

CNA - Stop HIV Iowa

“Laura and Mia had to pick those two out of a very large series we bought on the subject from Tilly. They are amazing even if you don’t know her usual works, maybe even more so if you do.”

Much of this show implies mentorship. Grant Wood attracted three other artists in the show to Iowa when he taught at the University of Iowa. They continued to attract others. Jules and Cornelis Rutenberg Kirschenbaum did the same at Drake two decades later. The 75th anniversary show celebrates those two universities’ art departments, including Philip Chen at Drake whose art melds with architecture and physics in a Leonardo (the inventor, not the Mona Lisa admirer) mode. 

I ask what acquisitions (now called “accessions” in “woke” speak) did the center make in Fleming’s run that he is most proud of? He turns around and points at the only piece behind the desk in his office, a stunning silhouette by Kara Walker. He thinks twice before he speaks. “I love them all. My answer is whatever the last one was.”

Because this writer is primarily a food writer, and because Fleming is a serious food guy, what were some of his favorite dining discoveries coming here from North Carolina and New York City? 

“Early on, our family went to Waveland Diner. The menu mentioned ‘noodles on mashed.’ I ordered it on the spot. It’s still on the menu there, but I hardly see it anywhere else. Graziano’s is a museum class place — grocery, deli and more. I took Cicely Brown to Machine Shed. I didn’t know she and all her entourage were vegans. They were lovely about it. Most celebrities who have been here have been wonderfully gracious. I will not mention the others even ‘off the record.’ ” 

(I asked Brown what she ate at Machine Shed. “Lots and lots of cocktails,” she said.) 

Despite the evidence that Burkhalter and Laufer bring to this show, Fleming has been, by far, the most supportive director ever of Iowa artists. n

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