On September 17, 1968, Allan Shields, Dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, spoke on the topic of "The Future of Art Education". His speech was part of series of lectures and discussions, which the Department of Art hoped would define a guiding philosophy that would help to establish the requirements for a new facility. Dean Shields said, "The ultimate appropriate goal for a university art department is to teach students what it means to become an educated person." Dean Shields believed that art education was one part of the curriculum. He said, "Students should not be allowed to concentrate on studio subjects to the exclusion of other areas. Teachers ought to strengthen teaching on the historical and critical level."
The Department of Art, under the direction of Professor Harry Guillaume, established a committee, composed of Professors Ralph Haskell, Don Finegan, and Ralph Koppel, to develop a need and scope study. By December 1972, there were plans for a $1.8 million building that the Regents hoped to forward to the General Assembly. But other projects came first in what came to be known as Phase I of the Speech/Art Complex. Construction on the Strayer-Wood Theatre and the Communication Arts Center began in 1975 and was completed in 1978.
By January 1978, the projected budget for Phase II of the Speech/Art Complex, a new art building, had risen to $4.18 million. But the 1982 session of the General Assembly brought no funds for the building. Despite the delays, planning continued. Director of Facilities Planning Leland Thomson stated that the building would be built with a special concern for safety. He cited the potential hazards of some of the materials that artists employed.
Dr. Michael McCann was hired as director of safety for the project in an attempt to ensure a secure building environment. During late 1982, Mr. Thomson and art faculty met with architects Bussard/Dikis Associates of Des Moines, even though money still had not been allocated to the project. The university used internal funds to hire the architects and draw up preliminary plans. UNI administrators and representatives of the architectural firm toured art facilities in Texas and Kansas to study security, student and staff traffic patterns, fixed and moveable equipment, building materials, lighting patterns, and HVAC systems. They planned to house all phases of the university's art program, which had been scattered in four campus locations, in one building.
In March 1983, the architects revealed their plans. The Art Building would be located west of the Strayer-Wood Theatre and the Communication Arts Center. A courtyard would be developed in the middle of the Speech/Art Complex with sculpture featured there as a focal point. Skylights and windows would allow natural light into studios and offices. The two wings of the building would be connected by an atrium hallway.
Lee Thomson noted that the administration hoped to begin construction as early as July 1983, pending approval by the General Assembly of the $8.365 million project. Governor Branstad signed the legislative resolution to authorize bonds for the project on May 2, 1983. He authorized $8.47 million for the 44,000 square foot building.
In June 1983, Mr. Thomson said that the project would be let in two main contracts: one for grading and utilities and a second for the building itself. He hoped that this fast track method would make the building ready for use by late 1985. Governor Branstad, President Kamerick, Vice President Thomas Hansmeier, and student Mary Tegeler turned the first spades of earth on the project in groundbreaking ceremonies on June 29, 1983, and construction got underway shortly thereafter.
By October 1984, Mr. Thomson noted that the contractors were getting the building enclosed so that they could concentrate on interior work during the winter. He said that they were aiming for an August 1985 completion.
The building's official opening was marked by a ceremony on October 26, 1985, when Professor William Lew accepted the keys to the facilities.
Professor Joseph Ruffo, former head of the Department of Art, returned for the ceremony. Doy Kaasa represented the students, and Professor Shirley Eliason Haupt represented the faculty. The ceremony was followed by tours of the building, exhibitions in the Gallery of Art, and exhibitions of student work in display cases.
Over the years, several sculptures have been mounted in the outdoor areas around the building. Probably the most notable is Walter Dusenbery's Porta Largo on the south side of the building.
Shortly after the building opened for use, several people who used the Ceramics Laboratory complained that contaminants in that area were making them sick. The university closed the lab and undertook thorough investigation and testing. After about four months, the lab was re-opened.
Over the years, the Kamerick Art Building has been known by several names. Originally it was considered simply an extension of the Communication Arts Center.
Later it gained its own identity as the Art Building, and finally the Kamerick Art Building. The man for whom the building is named, former President John J. Kamerick, was instrumental in securing funds for its construction.
Bussard/Dikis Associates Ltd. of Des Moines, the architects for the Kamerick Art Building, were commended for their work in 1989 when they received the Honor Award from the Iowa Chapter of American Institute of Architects. H. Kennard Bussard said, "We wanted the building to say 'Graphic art takes place in this building.'" Mr. Bussard also noted, "We worked to design a contextually appropriate building. It's also an inviting building. We feel it makes a new announcement on the west side of campus."
In 1990, a small fire ignited near a belt sander in the Sculpture Laboratory in the North Wing in the middle of the night. No one was injured, but the dust collection system was damaged and soot from the smoky fire spread through much of the North Wing. On October 27, 2002, a water valve burst and flooded the lobby, auditorium, and the Gallery of Art. Clean-up crews worked to salvage facilities and collections damaged by the water.
Compiled by Student Assistant Sarah Eaton and Library Assistant Susan Witthoft; edited by University Archivist Gerald L. Peterson, July 1996; substantially revised by Gerald L. Peterson, with research by Student Assistant Julie Wiese and scanning by Library Assistant Gail Briddle, November 2002; last updated, February 10, 2015 (GP); Photos and citations updated by Graduate Assistant Eliza Mussmann, September 14, 2022.