Along the riverfront in Davenport, Iowa, there is no missing the Figge Art Museum, a sleek 21st-century structure that looks like the daring new kid downtown, rising above brick warehouses, Victorian storefronts and ornate hotels.
The Figge (figgeartmuseum.org) received national attention in 2005 as the first major new building in the United States designed by “neo-minimalist” British architect David Chipperfield. In 2017, Chipperfield was chosen to develop a plan to update the Minneapolis Institute of Art campus.
Perched across the street from the Mississippi River, the Figge resembles two huge stacked blocks — a two-story rectangle topped by a smaller two-story square encased in glass that reflects the varying blue-gray colors of the sky and water. By day, it looks solid yet see-through, imposing yet ethereal. By night, with interior sections illuminated, it glows.
Credited with helping revitalize this old river city’s downtown, the Figge was a highlight of an art-filled road trip in eastern Iowa that also included visits to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (crma.org), which has the world’s largest collection of work (over 200 pieces) by local boy-done-good Grant Wood, plus the restored studio where he painted his iconic portrayal of a dour pitchfork-wielding farmer and daughter, “American Gothic.”
My husband and I wanted to see not only the Figge’s building but its exhibit “French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950,” that runs through Jan. 6, featuring 60 works from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection. We ended up also enjoying a very different exhibit of work by Ohio “outsider” artist William Hawkins, who died in 1990 after gaining fame in his 80s. It runs through Dec. 30.
We went from galleries lined with Hawkins’ exuberant, boldly colored, off-kilter paintings of city buildings and wild animals to calmer rooms with French landscapes, portraits, nudes and still-lifes that trace the rise of Impressionism and modern art, with work by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Degas, Matisse, Chagall, Bonnard and more.
We visited the Figge’s well-known permanent collection of Haitian art — the largest in an American museum — and lingered by a massive window to enjoy a spectacular view of the Mississippi, which had burst its banks, flooding onto a grassy riverfront park. Davenport famously opted to maintain its river sightline and easy access rather than install levees or a flood wall.
Grant Wood studio
The next day, we drove to Cedar Rapids along back roads on a crisp fall day, past undulating fields of harvest-ready corn and trees ablaze with color. We could have been breezing through a Grant Wood landscape, which was fitting given our destination — the painter’s former studio, where he painted and lived from 1924 to 1935, for a while with his mother.
The studio is on the top floor of a 19th-century brick carriage house. Wood transformed the space, building a tiny bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. The largest area was used for painting and living, with rollaway beds and storage racks for paintings and tools.
After climbing an exterior staircase to the loft, we walked through a door with a pointer that Wood could spin to let guests know if he was “In,” “Out of Town,” “Taking a Bath” or “Having a Party.” Inside the light-filled loft, easels displayed reproductions of the paintings that made Wood famous — realistic-bordering-on-surreal paintings of rural and small-town life in the Midwest now known as American Regionalism.
The studio opened to the public in 2004. Free tours are offered weekends from April through December. We watched a short and interesting film about Wood’s life, first as a country boy on an Iowa farm and then in Cedar Rapids, where he moved at age 10 with his mother and three siblings after his father’s death. Wood also dabbled in Impressionism, influenced by a Paris stint. He died in 1942 at age 50.
We saw many of the paintings Wood worked on in that studio at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. “American Gothic” is, alas, at the Chicago Institute of Art, but we admired other famous paintings including the 1931 “Young Corn,” an exaggerated Iowa landscape of rolling hills and puffy trees, and the 1929 “Woman With Plants,” another dour-faced plant-holding woman (Wood’s mother) set against a rural backdrop.
We also were drawn to a wooden school bench with amusing carvings by Wood, during his stint as a junior high school art teacher. Featuring wooden heads of weeping children, this “mourner’s bench” was where misbehaving students sat outside the principal’s office, presumably mourning their transgressions.
Where to eat and sleep
In Davenport, the restored Hotel Blackhawk mixes Old World charm, including a retro barbershop, and hipster notes, including a basement bowling alley/martini lounge (1-563-322-5000; hotelblackhawk.com). Nearby, another hotel, the Current, (1-563-231-9555; thecurrentiowa.com) has contemporary Midwestern art and a “sky bar” lounge with an open-air deck and expansive river views.
For a quick bite in Cedar Rapids, visit NewBo City Market (newbocitymarket.org), which has vendors selling dumplings, barbecue, baked goods, pizza and more.
Betsy Rubiner of Des Moines writes the travel blog Take Betsy With You (betsyrubiner.wordpress.com).