Newswise — The University of Iowa School of Art and Art History has long been ahead of its time.

Along with the UI being the first major university to accept creative work in lieu of written theses, the school was among the first to unite studio art and art history in one department. But it also finds value in tradition, and in the 1930s decided to follow one initiated by Giorgio Vasari, a 16th century Italian painter, architect, writer, and historian.

The school began to require graduate students to leave behind a work they completed during their time at the UI. The works—which now number nearly 6,000—include paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures, and other art objects from as early as 1939.

The unique collection provides a glimpse of academic American art over much of the last century.

“There are a few other collections in the country, but they don’t have the breadth that we have, and they don’t go back 80 years like we do,” says Eric Dean, administrator for the Office of Visual Materials in the School of Art and Art History.

After years of being located on the Oakdale campus, the Thesis Rental Gallery now has a new home—physically and virtually.

Last spring, staff began moving the collection to Old Museum of Art, in the heart of the UI arts campus. Over the summer and fall, each work also was photographed and cataloged for a new digital gallery.

The Thesis Rental Gallery rents works in the collection to members of the UI community for display in their office or work area. Along with easier access for patrons, the new location provides better storage space for the collection. One of the main upgrades is giant painting racks left over from when the building housed the Stanley Museum of Art before the 2008 flood.

“In Oakdale, it was really hard for people to see the paintings because they were stacked like albums in an orange crate, and you’d have to flip through them,” Dean says. “This is a much better space for art.”

Because each rack can be pulled out to see the paintings hung on it, the works are touched less often.

“When you have to come and flip through everything, it puts a lot of wear and tear on the art,” says Alice Phillips, curator in the Office of Visual Materials.

The online gallery also will help with preservation.

“We imagine people will browse the website to make their initial picks, and then come here where we can pull them out and they can finalize their choice,” Phillips says.

The online gallery—searchable by size and subject—will dramatically increase access to the collection and allow students and researchers to explore it in ways that were not possible before. Dean and Phillips also expect the online gallery to serve as a recruitment tool to show potential students what past students have done, as well as help the university stay connected to graduates. Alumni often email Dean and Phillips, asking about work they created or remember seeing in a university building.

The collection includes the works of notable alumni such as sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett, painter Ellen Lanyon, painter Byron Burford, and painter and sculptor Miriam Schapiro. Phillips, who received a PhD in art history from the UI in 2012, says it’s fascinating to see how styles changed over the decades.

“You can see a shift when different professors start teaching,” Phillips says. “You also can see the movement from regionalism in the 1940s to abstraction in the ’50s, more figurative art in the ’60s and ’70s, and then back to abstraction.”

Around 2000, the UI gradually transitioned from collecting students’ physical work to collecting a digital portfolio, which is stored in the Graduate Archive. The university stopped accepting physical works in 2014.

“We couldn’t fit any more in the storage we had,” Dean says. “If we had this whole building, we’d fill it right up, but realistically we can’t.”

Maintaining such a large rental collection has its challenges.

“We try to keep things clean, framed, and safe. That’s our main focus,” Dean says. “When something comes in broken, we try to keep the pieces in hopes that in the future we may be able to put it back together and have it restored, but right now, we just don’t have the funds and resources to do that.”

Works from the Thesis Rental Gallery can be found in many university buildings, as well as in some businesses with university ties. The annual rental fee goes toward administrative costs, storage, and delivery and pickup.

“This is not a for-profit organization,” Dean says. “We are grateful for all of our renters because they keep this collection—which has archival and historic value as a collection of academic American art—viable. Rental fees mean we can preserve it and share it with the rest of campus.”