A bright idea: Figge plans to light up special 2025

A rendering of the $4-million “Evanescent Field” at the Figge Art Museum.

By Jonathan Turner, OurQuadCities.com

It’s the new year, but the Figge Art Museum already has its eyes on a bigger new year – 2025 – which expects to be momentous in many ways.

Not only is the downtown Davenport landmark planning to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its sleek glass building (which opened Aug. 6, 2005), and the 100th anniversary of the original Davenport Municipal Art Gallery.


Early 2025 is when the four-story Figge (at 225 W. 2nd St.) hopes to have its long-planned $4-million LED lighting project completed as part of the ambitious Main Street Landing along the Davenport riverfront.

“That would be a wonderful way to celebrate the centennial,” Patrick Downing, development director for the Figge, said recently.

The new state-funded project, “Evanescent Field,” is by internationally acclaimed light artist Leo Villareal. He is known for his site-specific light installations, including San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, The Bay Lights; Illuminated River, a public work of art that unites 9 London bridges through one artwork; Multiverse, a tunnel installation at the National Gallery of Art; and more.

Villareal uses binary code and simple structures to create complex light sequences through custom software that incorporates a site’s environment, creating a “digital campfire” around which people can gather to experience art. Lighting the Figge is an electrifying dream about 20 years in the making.

When British architect Sir David Chipperfield designed the museum’s current building, the original intent of both the architect and the QC community was to illuminate its glass façade to provide an ethereal glow at night, executive director Michelle Hargrave said recently.

Cost overruns during construction prevented this from happening, but over the years an idea arose to move beyond conventional building lighting to transform the Figge through light and art, making it a public artwork that all in the community can experience.


The idea to make it a transformational, unforgettable work of art (giving new life to the Davenport skyline) happened around 2015 after the Figge did some community focus groups.

“People said they lamented the fact we didn’t move forward with the lighting of the building,” Hargrave (who’s been in the job three years) said. “The Figge is a jewel during the day, but at night it goes dark. The whole block is dark.”

The previous director Tim Schiffer said instead of just lighting the building from the outside, they wanted to make a bigger statement and light it from within, Hargrave said, noting they engaged Villareal in 2015.

The light designer visited the Figge that year, experimenting with different colors.

Through the museum, Villareal recently said: “I am honored and excited by the invitation to create a public artwork called Evanescent Field at the Figge Art Museum. This lighting sculpture will be integrated into David Chipperfield’s stunning architecture with the goal of activating the museum through sequences of undulating light for everyone in the Quad Cities to enjoy.”

Chipperfield said: “I am delighted to hear that the original plan to illuminate the façade will finally become a reality and look forward to seeing the realized project personally as soon as possible.”

Villareal did a basic design concept years ago, but the museum didn’t have the money for what would be a $4-million plan, Hargrave said. Schiffer unsuccessfully applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and when Hargrave started, it was mentioned to her early on as a priority project.

“It would be really great to light the building,” she said. In early 2020, they met with David Raver of RDG Lighting in Des Moines, to discuss the project.

There will be 3,000 feet of LED strips placed through the museum, and fixtures that can withstand 150-degree temperatures, Hargrave said. The total of 1,100 LED lights will be placed between the two walls, and a server will control the light programming, determining the sequence of the patterns.

It can produce up to two million colors, Hargrave said. “The technology has come so far that the lights themselves can achieve all these different colors,” she said. “It’s also the programming that Leo has put into play that will help achieve the two million colors.”

Villareal will visit a couple times, and for the main sequencing, he’ll be here about three weeks, observing the environment – including the river and sky, Hargrave said. “So, the sequencing itself is going to be site specific,” she said. “It’s going to be constantly changing, but it will be pre-set.”

Leo Villareal, a world-renowned light artist based in New York City, earned degrees from Yale and New York University.

Part of the city’s plans with Main Street Landing is to enhance the Skybridge and update lighting to complement what will happen with the Figge. The Skybridge has similarly colored glass panels as the museum.

The $7-million Skybridge also opened in 2005, part of River Renaissance. Iowa taxpayers provided $3.5 million in the form of a Vision Iowa grant, Rhythm City Casino paid $2 million, and the City of Davenport spent $500,000 for its initial construction.

Getting funding quickly

It made more sense for the museum to be part of the city of Davenport’s overall application for Destination Iowa funding for Main Street Landing.

The application was due Sept. 30, 2022, and on Dec. 2, Davenport announced it was awarded $9,600,000 toward three signature projects that combine art, architecture, and play. The projects to receive funding include Main Street Landing, an all-season riverfront plaza for both recreation and events; technology enhancements to the lighting on the Davenport Skybridge; and the creation of an evanescent light field at the Figge.

The city is getting $8 million from Destination Iowa, and the Figge will get $1.6 million.

Once Hargrave found out about the Destination Iowa grant, the Figge had to raise 60 percent of the total cost within two months, with the state covering 40 percent.

The Figge was part of the city’s overall application and started fundraising in July. The Bechtel Trusts was so excited about the project that they committed a multi-year pledge, as did the Regional Development Authority, Hargrave said.

“There’s been a lot of community excitement around this,” she said. Of the $2.2 million in private funds raised, roughly $700,000 is from individual donations, Downing said. They have about $250,000 left to raise for the project.

“We had to do a very focused fundraising initiative because we only had two months,” Hargrave said. “Most of the gifts at this point, our board really supported this and some key folks who are national donors as well.”

The Figge had to have funding commitments by late September, since the Destination Iowa application was due Sept. 30. “We’re incredibly grateful to them and the governor for their generous support,” Hargrave said.

“We did receive 40 percent of that, which is unbelievably exciting,” Downing said of the lighting project cost.

After working two years and ten months as Palmer College’s development director, he started his Figge job as chief fundraiser in January 2022.

The museum wanted to be part of the city’s grant because the Figge is on the riverfront.

“What they’re doing to revitalize the riverfront is very exciting,” Hargrave said. “We’ve always been in conversation about developing the riverfront, so this fits right into that – whether it’s developing it culturally, recreationally or economically. It seemed like a good match for us to work together.

“The city had a strong application and we were excited to be part of that,” she said.

“We are so grateful to Governor Reynolds and Destination Iowa for this important investment in Davenport and arts and culture,” Hargrave said.


Working with Des Moines firm

The Figge is partnering with Des Moines-based RDG Planning & Design on the lighting project. RDG (which works throughout Iowa and nationwide) is the implementing agency, after Villareal does the concept and overall design, Hargrave said. She hopes the project will bring more people into the museum.

“We want it to attract people to the museum – this is going to be something that’s gonna light up the sky, light up the river,” Hargrave said. “You’ve got an internationally known artist that’s going to create buzz. We anticipate the design itself is going to attract people.”

“We also are excited about the way it’s just going to light up the downtown and help revitalize the downtown,” she said. It’s important that the lighting is free for all to enjoy – you won’t have to buy a ticket.

“Which is also part of our mission,” Hargrave said. “We fulfill our mission not only inside the building, but out in the community.”

She hopes to create as much buzz for “Evanescent Field” as RDG did in lighting design and engineering for the iconic High Trestle Bridge in Madrid, Iowa. That 2011 project (over the Des Moines River, three hours west of Davenport) incorporates public art and lighting, drawing around 250,000 people each year.

The High Trestle Bridge is in Madrid, Iowa, north of Des Moines.

The High Trestle Bridge spans over 2,300 feet across the river, with massive columns, some nearly 130 feet tall. These icons (lit at night) visually focus the trail and evoke the concept of entering a mine, according to RDG.

“Seams of coal appear in lighted veins in the stacked forms on the bridge landings,” its website says. “One is inside the story, surrounded by the sculptural forms that embody history and geology. The changing geometry of the steel cribbing radiates around you. The viewer moves along the path as though moving through history, through the tunnel of a mine. Blue LED fixtures highlight the inside faces of each crib.”

“Evanescent Field” is expected to provide a similarly unforgettable art experience to those visiting downtown Davenport and the waterfront. Everyone within a few miles of the Figge will be able to experience the building’s illumination at night.

Increasing museum visibility, literally

The Figge also hopes to increase memberships and press coverage of the museum with the lighting.

“This removes another barrier,” Hargrave said of the project. “Among some people, there’s still the perception that the Figge is not for me. If you have something accessible like this, hopefully, that will attract them to come down here and will feel more comfortable coming into the museum.”

One longtime member at a recent Thursday night party at the Figge said: “We’re already on the map internationally because this is a world-class museum, but man, this is gonna add so much more to it,” Downing said. He hopes the lighting will attract a much broader visitor base from around the U.S. and the world.

“It’s certainly going to help put Davenport on the map,” he added. “We’re doing this not just for the benefit of the museum. We’re doing this for the benefit of the entire community. I hope when people think, maybe 15-20 years down the road, when they think of the Quad Cities….I sure hope they think of the lit-up Figge Art Museum as one of the most beautiful things in the area.”

Hargrave will work with students to create programming around the lighting, including coding that Villareal uses to create it.

“He started thinking about, there’s something primeval about light,” she said. “He thinks of his sculptures as digital campfires that bring people together.”

“It’s a chance to bring our community together,” Hargrave said.

Among Midwest works, Villareal has created a permanent light installation at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, Kan., which consists of thousands of white LEDs, custom software, electrical wiring, and hardware.

He also created a huge lighting installation in The Franklin, on West Adams Street in Chicago.

Downing is a big fan of Villareal’s lighting of bridges along London’s River Thames.

Some of Villareal’s lighted bridges on the River Thames in London.

With the museum’s increased visibility and (hopefully) increased attendance and membership “comes more opportunities to engage more people to support the museum,” he said. “There are so many members that Michelle and myself have engaged with that started with giving $100 a year, and that’s ballooned to our top levels of annual giving.”

“We’re not doing this to make fundraising easier, but I do think there’s gonna be a lot of great perks on that front, to having this here with greater visibility,” Downing said. “But also to with greater engagement, to working with area educators. There’s so many programming opportunities, we’re just barely scratching the surface.”

“We’re providing an important work of public art to everyone in the community,” Hargrave said.

Soon to mark 100 years

The Figge’s roots began as the Davenport Municipal Art Gallery in 1925, with the passage of a law allowing the city to accept of a gift of 330 artworks from a former mayor, Charles A. Ficke, and open a museum (the first city-owned art museum in Iowa).

It was renamed the Davenport Museum of Art in 1987. It continued to be a city-run museum until the opening of its new $47-million building in 2005, which was named in honor of a major gift from the V.O. and Elizabeth Kahl Figge Foundation.

At that time, the city transferred responsibility for management, care and exhibition of its collection to the Figge Art Museum, a nonprofit organization.

Ficke’s original collection of European, American and Spanish Viceregal art has grown through the efforts of generations of philanthropists and civic leaders and now includes the Grant Wood Archive and works by other American Regionalist artists, an extensive collection of Haitian art, and contemporary works

It’s important that Villareal’s heritage is Mexican-American, and the Figge supports increasing the profile of artists of color.

“People of color are underrepresented in STEM fields, and this is an opportunity for him to work with students and inspire them to think about this as a possible career,” Hargrave said.

The museum has raised over $120,000 for its Art Diversity and Equity Fund, which is ongoing.

“It’s an important initiative,” she said. “We’re committed to expanding our art collection, to be more representative of our community. We hope people continue to give to that fund.”

The Figge’s art acquisition in the last fiscal year all came from artists of color or underrepresented communities, Hargrave said.

The new fund (launched in 2021) aimed to expand the museum collection of art from Black artists, artists of African, Native American, Hispanic, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous and Middle Eastern descent as well as works from women, LGBTQA+, and any other artists who are identified as marginalized, oppressed, or underrepresented in the museum’s permanent collection.

Activated at nightfall, the 2025 lights will brilliantly illuminate the Figge’s landmark glass building, enhancing the riverfront by providing cultural, educational, recreational, and community-building opportunities for residents and increasing tourism to the region.

While it will not be changed to coincide with holidays (like the I-74 bridge has been lit up in green and red for Christmas), Villareal’s innovative, constantly changing light sculpture will illuminate all four sides of the building.

To see more of Villareal’s architectural commissions, visit his website.

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