TRANSFORM: Creating Vibrant, Equitable Spaces

The Spring 2020 Obermann Humanities Symposium, What Can Museums Become? was organized by Joyce Tsai (Art & Art History, CLAS; UI Stanley Museum of Art) and Jennifer Buckley (English, CLAS) in conjunction with the Stanley Museum of Art, the School of Art & Art History, the Ida Beam Visiting Professorships Program, and the Department of English. Inspired by the opening of the UI’s new museum, the co-directors wanted participants to inquire into the purpose of the museum writ large by asking foundational questions such as, “How might we draw strength from existing institutions to enable vibrant futures? How can we expand the communities who feel a sense of belonging within and around museums? What must we confront and transform to make this possible?”

Held in early March, just prior to the University of Iowa’s closing of on-campus events due to COVID-19, the symposium attracted more than one hundred guests, who included not only faculty and students, but also museum professionals and supporters of the University of Iowa’s museums and art programming. We were lucky to hear from leaders in the field, such as Michelle Kuo of the Museum of Modern Art; Joanna Burton of the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University; and Jill Ahlberg Yohe, co-curator of the groundbreaking exhibit Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists.

The first panel, “Museums and Communities,” took place in the new, beautiful FilmScene space at the Chauncey and featured speakers who work with nonprofits that strive to find new ways of doing things and establish new networks.

“What was so impactful about that panel was that it was a very material demonstration of the local arts economy,” said Buckley. “What’s continuing to resonate were the moments of convergence and divergence among the speakers.”

View the full schedule at

This symposium could not have been more timely. The UI Stanley Museum of Art is in the process of building a new museum—not only a new building, which will open in the Fall of 2022, but a new kind of art museum—one that stands in relation to its publics and presents its collections in new ways. The three-day symposium brought together some of the most innovative thinkers about the roles museums can and should play in a rapidly changing world and opened a dialogue with our campus and community audiences that will continue to serve us well in the years ahead.”  -—Lauren Lessing, Director, University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art