How Fate Led To A World-Class Art Museum In Small-Town Clarinda, Iowa

Aug 17, 2016

Robert and Karen Duncan are well-known art collectors in Lincoln, Nebraska – but they haven’t forgotten their hometown in southwest Iowa.

The couple moved to Lincoln in the 1960s, when Robert came to run the family business, Duncan Aviation, a massive airplane service business. They also started collecting art. Forty years later, they had amassed a significant collection, and built a home designed to display it, on forty acres landscaped for a sculpture garden.

They have other collections, too. Including Karen’s books. More than ten thousand of them. One day she got an earful from their property manager, Susan Roth.

“She said, ‘We have to do something about the books. They’re out of control. There’s no place to put them. We need to build a building out north of the house, and we could store our art in it and our books.”

But Karen didn’t want to build a building.

“If we do anything,” she told Roth, “I would buy a Carnegie Library and move it on the property.”

At the turn of the 20th century, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie financed 1,689 libraries all around the country – gorgeous, sturdy buildings, many of which have since been re-purposed. So they got online to see what was for sale.

Robert and Karen Duncan at home in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

What happened next, Karen says, was fate.

“There on the screen was the library where I spent my entire childhood and all my young years,” Karen says.

It was the library in Clarinda, Iowa, where Karen and Robert Duncan both grew up. And it was set to be auctioned off the next day.

They bought it.

People do move these libraries – but it would have been impossible to haul this two-story brick and stone structure the hundred miles from Clarinda, Iowa, to Lincoln, Nebraska, because no bridge over the Missouri River could withstand its weight. So, what to do with it?

“We show our collection, loan it, move it around and so why not create a museum in Clarinda using this library?” Robert says. “That seemed like the perfect answer, because people in that community – and indeed small communities all across the country – don’t get exposure to fine art.

While preserving many of the building’s original fixtures, they replaced the roof, the electrical system and the plumbing and added an elevator. The Clarinda Carnegie Art Museum opened in 2014.

Clarinda has other attractions: The Glenn Miller Birthplace Museum, the Nodaway Valley Historical Museum, and, Kokenge notes, fourteen restaurants. But the Duncans’ art collection, big enough to change exhibitions every six months, is something new.

Mayor Gordon Kokenge says the Clarinda Carnegie Art Museum has increased tourism in his town.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

“This is really high-class stuff,” Clarinda Mayor Gordon Kokenge says of the Duncans’ collection. “So then the touring industry gets involved, and now we have these tour buses coming into the community.”

It’s also the type of art that can provoke entertaining calls to city hall.

“They had this old car out on the sidewalk, it was a foreign car, it had been burned up, and it was some form of art,” Kokenge remembers of one transportation-themed exhibition. He laughs as he tells the story.

“It just so happened that the police department was starting a jalopy program, and if a car wasn’t licensed, we were going to pick them up and put it in the impound lot. So we had people saying well, you’re coming to pick ours up but you left this one sitting at the museum.”

The car was a Citroën, part of an installation by an Argentinian artist who goes by RES (Raul Eduardo Stolkiner).

“He had restored it all and then destroyed it, because the world wasn’t right and he wanted to take a stand,” explains Chase McAndrews, a 13-year-old who volunteers as a docent at the museum.

Ante La Ley - Instalación / Video Arte (fragmento) from Azul Vals Cine on Vimeo.

McAndrews is one of ten kids who volunteers as a junior docent, studying manuals prepared by Anne Pagel, the museum’s curator, and Trish Okamoto, its director, so they can be prepared to talk about the art with anyone who visits.

McAndrews is undaunted by the challenging nature of some of the work, such as Manal AlDowayan’s “Esmi #5,” part of the current exhibition on international art. It’s a wall-sized rope of white prayer beads, each one the size of a soccer ball.

“They were created by a Saudi Arabian artist,” McAndrews says. “She had women from Saudi Arabia come in and write their names on them before they were married to their husbands. Once you’re married to your husband, you’re property. So this was how they were going to get recognized in the world, by having their name on a piece of art.”

Despite these women’s troubling reality, McAndrews says the sculpture makes him happy. “I’m glad for those people who got their names out. I think it’s amazing.”

Chase McAndrews, a junior docent at Clarinda Carnegie Art Museum, with Manal AlDowayan's 'Esmi #5.'
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

Okamoto lures kids with other youth activities and, for good measure, she keeps a full bowl of M&M’s near the front door. Other visitors don’t need that much bait.

“At lunch meetings uptown, overhearing conversations – not that you intentionally do that – but you’ll hear people saying ‘Have you been to our art museum?’ Our art museum. They really take ownership of it.”

Like Kokenge, Okamoto knows the art has required some getting-used-to for some Clarinda residents. After Brad Howe’s “Wall of Eyes,” a set of giant aluminum circles, was installed on the front lawn, she got a call from a local farmer — one she's known her whole life, who still calls her "Sugar Britches" from when she was a kid — informing her that workers had left some air-conditioning ducting out front.

“I said, ‘No that’s a piece of art!’ He says, ‘You’re kiddin’ me!’”

Okamoto told him to come back and look again.

“I get the phone call the next day: ‘You’re right, that’s not air-conditioning ducting.’ I said, ‘I know it’s not. What did you think?’ He said, ‘I don’t get it.’”

But Okamoto was happy that he got in his car to go check it out. That was good enough for her.

“He’s so fun,” she says. “He’s been here every show.”

So have a lot of other people.

“It’s a little town of 5,000, and we’ve already had 12,000 people through that museum,” Karen Duncan says. “Which is, unheard of. It’s amazing.”

Or, perhaps, it really was fate.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

This story is part of Artland, a regional public radio collaboration reporting on stories of creativity building community in unexpected places.