There were dropped jaws and more polite phrasings like, “What has persuaded you to make this move?” when I told people that I was moving to Iowa, in 1985 for a job as curator of education at the Des Moines Art Center. “Big careers are made in smaller museums,” I often answered.
But the truth is that I was offered a job and I had no other prospects.
But what a great few years it was. I arrived and the then director left, like ships passing in the night, and the education department was liberated to invent itself. Back then, there was no curator, no hierarchy of heads, deputies and associates. We minnows got to school like big fish and I was able to curate exhibitions as well as train docents, write gallery handouts and devise programs with my colleagues whose fiefdom was the art school.
It was too good to last, the director eventually hired was not my cup of tea, and I moved on to graduate school.
Yet I loved Des Moines. I remember Iowa with great affection: glacial winters, summers of tropical humidity and tornado warnings that sent us to the cellar. I went caucusing in the 1986 presidential primary and a friend won the sculpture award at the Pig-casso Show sponsored by the Pork Producers of Iowa with a marvelous miniature construction she entitled “Pearls Before Swine.” There were many drives past corn growing on curvaceous Grant Wood fields, a billowing mass a friend called “just too, too green.” The city itself was beginning to stir from the somnolent and depressed sixties and seventies. I attended opera and ate and terrific little restaurants.
We spent a couple days before our niece’s Mason City nuptials on Memory Lane. Our room at the Hampton Inn had a balcony and a view over the Des Moines River toward the State House with its gleaming dome. We strolled the new John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Garden downtown in the dimming gold of later afternoon. DMAC’s campus was little changed although the Meier Wing, the “new” wing opened in 1986, is not wearing well; the 1940s original Building, Eliel Saarinen’s last, still looks fresh and the Pei addition from 1958 is okay. The collections, however, are richer than ever (in no small part due to the Louise Noun bequest of women modernists) and gorgeously installed. Salisbury House, the former home of the Iowa State Educators Association, is restored, well-interpreted, and fascinating in a way I wouldn’t have imagined back in the 1980s.
My Dear One and I dined that last evening with EmBee, DMAC’s then Director of Education and my “boss,” and her husband.
Clink! Another toast. To good times. Then. And now again.