Des Moines Art Center stands out in design and acquisitions. Inside and outside, planning proved wise

WHEN the Des Moines Association of Fine Arts disbanded in 1945 and transferred its assets to the foundation that now administers the Des Moines Art Center, its collection consisted of 23 mostly undistinguished paintings and one sculpture, 22 woodblock prints by European schoolchildren, ``a set of drapes,'' and a number of other assorted oddments. Today, thanks to significant gifts and intelligent purchases, the Des Moines Art Center owns one of the Midwest's outstanding art collections, with excellent works by 19th- and 20th-century European and American artists, and major examples by, among others, Rodin, Munch, Brancusi, Giacometti, Bacon, Sargent, Diebenkorn, Dubuffet, Matisse, O'Keeffe, Rauschenburg, Stella, and Wood.

But, just as important, this art is housed in three remarkable buildings designed by a trio of major 20th-century architects, Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei, and Richard Meier. The buildings date from 1948 (the year the art center opened), 1968, and 1985, and work together exceptionally well, despite their dramatic contrasts in style. Mr. Saarinen's original low, modestly laid-out structures made of dolomite stone interact subtly but successfully with Mr. Pei's starker, somewhat more aggressive additions. And both in turn defer, at least in visual impact, to Mr. Meier's startlingly white and soft gray multiform extensions that display the gleaming porcelain walls so typical of his work.

A fourth major element, the Maytag Reflecting Pool, with its soaring Carl Milles sculpture, ``Pegasus and Bellerophon,'' completes the architectural ensemble and helps to unify it.

The strikingly modern appearance of the art center is very much in keeping with the original building committee's recommendations in 1944 that ``it should be a good example of the best architecture of the period in which it was built. ... We believe that Des Moines will not want, in the years to come, an imitation Greek, Gothic, or English architecture. ... Any style different from what we are used to may seem strange at first, but this building will be judged by succeeding generations, and it must satisfy them or it will be obsolete.'' They need not have worried. Judged either on its individual elements or its entirety, the center is a stunning success that promises never to become ``obsolete.''

What's true of the outside is at least equally true of the inside, both as to the type and distribution of its space and to the art that fills it. Here again, the wisdom of an earlier staff member, who argued that the foundation's limited purchase funds should not be ``wasted'' on minor Old Masters, but should be divided equally between ``the work of living artists, mostly American,'' and works of the past 150 years, has paid off handsomely.

By using these funds to buy primarily 19th- and 20th-century art, and often when reputations were still on the rise and prices were not yet astronomical, the foundation built a collection that is both impressive and important for its size.

The recent appointment of Julia Brown Turrell as director indicates that even more impressive things are about to take place. With her experience as senior curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and as exhibition director of MOCA's year-long inaugural show, Ms. Turrell brings just the right balance of professional art-world insight and organizational skill to help the art center realize its potential as a great American museum. Specifically, her plans include the following objectives:

To develop a substantial exhibition program, initiating at least one major exhibition and catalog every two years.

To continue to build upon and expand the collection with a special emphasis on post-1945 and contemporary art.

To make the exhibition program and presentation of the collection more accessible to the public through the use of the center's school and the development of a far-reaching education program to include films, lecture tours, and special programs for children.

To install works of art in a clear and beautiful way that will enhance the experience of the work of art for the public.

It was obvious during a recent tour of the center that the last-named goal is already in effect. Paintings, sculptures, and works on paper are rarely treated with as much deference, as much awareness of both their individual identities and their ability to enhance and define large interior spaces, as they are here.

The complete set of Grant Wood's lithographs (or his oil, ``The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover,'' for that matter), seems just as much at home in this starkly modern setting as Shusaku Arakawa's large word-image canvas ``Subject II'' or Richard Diebenkorn's lyrical abstraction ``Ocean Park No. 70.'' And for challenging contrapuntal placement, no viewer could ask for more than the subtle visual ``dialogue'' that occurs between David Smith's sculpture ``Zig II'' and Mark Rothko's painting, ``Light Over Gray.''

No matter where one looks, something interesting is going on. It might be a grouping of Warhol images in an area literally drenched with light; a stunning, early Sargent study in a gallery designed to underscore the more ``solid'' painterly qualities of 19th- and early 20th-century art; or one of Stella's colorful constructions dramatically illuminated in a perfectly-scaled enclosure. But whatever it is, it speaks to us directly and on its own terms - which, of course, is the way it should be, and why architects, designers, curators, and museum directors go to such trouble to see that the proper buildings are built and that the best possible art is placed within them in the best possible way.

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