Mooney Art Collection: An Astounding Exhibit of Priceless Art in a Tiny Midwestern Town

If you want to see the masters of the art world, you'd probably go to a museum in a major metropolitan area. You certainly wouldn't expect to find them in a library in the rural Midwest. I didn't.

If you want to see the masters of the art world, you’d probably go to a museum in a major metropolitan area. You certainly wouldn’t expect to find them in a library in the rural Midwest. I didn’t. And then I met The Mooney Collection in Charles City, Iowa. 

This astounding exhibit of nearly 80 prints spanning five centuries is located in the small town’s Public Library. There are examples of lithography, intaglio, etching, woodcut, aquatint, engraving, cameo, and drypoint. The earliest work is the woodcut “Solomon and his Wives” by Michael Wolgemuth from 1491. The most recent is from 1965 and is a gorgeous lithograph of Virgin and Child by Salvador Dali.

Yes, Dali. THE Dali.

There are works by:

  • Calder
  • Picasso (2)
  • Matisse
  • Chagall (2)
  • Goya
  • Whistler (5)
  • Gauguin (2)
  • Daumier
  • Manet (2)
  • Cezanne, van Dyck
  • and Rembrandt (4).
Rembrandt's Ecce Homo, an etching from 1636
Rembrandt’s Ecce Homo, an etching from 1636

The photo above is a portion of Rembrandt’s Ecce Homo, an etching from 1636. I took that photo with my phone as I was standing, mouth agape, in front of the masterpiece. The detail is incredible, the expressions so nuanced that each face tells a story.

Imagine seeing that in person. Imagine going to check out a book and, on your way out, stopping to gaze at the works of some of the greatest artists who have ever lived before crossing the street to get your groceries at the Hy-Vee.

Grant Wood

Tree Planting Group, by Grant Wood

How did this incredible collection end up in a small town in North Central Iowa? Through a tale of kindness and thanks.

Arthur Mooney was born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1859. When he was eight his family moved to Charles City, but four years later tragedy struck. Both of his parents and his sister died, leaving the boy an orphan at twelve years old. Local photographer James E. Rich took him in, teaching him in his studio, and his neighbors loaned the boy books. The kindness of the people of Charles City made an impact that he would remember for the rest of his life.

In 1890 Mooney left the town to go to art school in Minneapolis. Later he worked with the Eastman-Kodak Company in New York City, where he became involved in the arts community. As he rose to executive level, his work took him on frequent travels to Europe.

Over the years Mooney amassed a collection of art spanning centuries and continents. When he was 71 he bequeathed his first gift of art to the Charles City Public Library. A few years later, in a letter to the library, he referenced “the distant days and the people who were so kind in so many ways” during a tragic time of his life. He remembered them again upon his death in 1941, leaving his entire art library to the town that treated him with kindness.

What happens next is almost as surprising as the gift itself. The town simply did not have the money to catalog and properly display these works, so they languished in the boiler room for decades. The only person to enjoy the work was a janitor who was so pleased with Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait in Plumed Hat” that he taped it to the wall. In the upper left corner you can see the mark his appreciation left behind.

Rembrandt Self-Portrait in Plumed Hat

Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait in Plumed Hat”

In 1994 the works were rescued when Virginia Ruzicka was hired as the library director. She and others who recognized the importance of the collection began raising funds and invited curator Arthur Frick to assess the treasure that had been crated for over fifty years.

For two years Frick documented, researched, and cataloged. The money was raised to get these prints framed with archival techniques. In 1998, 57 years after Mooney bequeathed his collection to the community, the residents were able to view them at the Charles City Art Center.

Still, there was no permanent place to hang them, so they went out on loan to other community libraries. Then another longtime library supporter, Katherine Zastrow, left money for meeting rooms in her will. With those funds and additional money from the Andres Foundation, the gallery was built in 2000. The Mooney Collection finally has a permanent home for everyone to enjoy.

The Mooney Collection is just one of many surprises that await you in Charles City, Iowa. From white water rafting to gourmet pizza, this charming town is filled with unexpected pleasures and people who are passionate about everything they have to offer. Be sure to visit and you’ll, too, be impressed by “the people who were so kind in so many ways.” 

There's an astounding art exhibit in a tiny Midwestern town that any art lover must see. With works from Rembrandt, Dali, Wood, Manet, and more, you won't believe what the Charles City Public Library has in store. #Midwest #Art #OldMasters #Iowa #USA
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