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Ann and Henry Brunnier: Passionate Collectors & Philanthropists

Posted on June 8, 2020 at 4:00 PM by Adrienne Gennett

When I first came to ISU to work at University Museums, seven and a half years ago now, there were many reasons. A university where I had immediate interaction with students eager to learn through art, a world class public art collection that continues to add beauty to the already beautiful campus, and even the opportunity to be on a true college campus as my undergraduate and graduate experiences were both smack in the middle of huge urban cities (Washington, D.C. and New York City). But foremost, because there was a decorative arts collection that was diverse and interesting, which I knew I could readily and excitedly integrate into so many aspects of curricula across Iowa State’s huge campus. 

Decorative arts are my passion - objects that are both beautiful and functional, serving a purpose, while bringing joy to our lives. The diversity of the decorative arts collection at University Museums is thanks to Ann and Henry Brunnier, passionate collectors and philanthropists. This diversity allows me to use actual objects to show students who are learning about the Roman Empire examples of ancient glass made in that period and the world-changing development of glass blowing. Or through the collection of Chinese and European porcelain, the history of a material so sought after it made men and women “mad with desire” and how that reflects culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are so many more examples I could provide that I would have a novel if I continued!

The core collection of decorative arts, many of the objects that I use each and every semester, are the same objects first donated to the University by Ann and Henry Brunnier. Without Ann’s passion for art and decorative arts or Henry’s world travels, and both their generosity, University Museums would certainly not be the resource that it is today for the Iowa State community and all of Iowa. Their story is retold by the Museums in a plaque that hangs in the Ann Brunnier Decorative Arts Gallery within the Brunnier Art Museum, below is the text included on that plaque:


Henry J. Brunnier (1882-1971) graduated from Iowa State College in 1904 with a degree in engineering. Henry met Ann Weideman (1884-1970) when they were children in Manning, Iowa, later marrying in 1905. Henry achieved national acclaim early in his career for his work rebuilding the city of San Francisco after the devastating 1906 earthquake and ensuing fires decimated most of the city. The engineering company he established, H.J. Brunnier Associates, was a great success and remains in existence today. Henry also actively participated in several philanthropic associations, most notably a long leadership of Rotary International, including service as president from 1952-53. His duties allowed Henry and Ann to travel the world. During these travels Ann developed a passion for collecting, beginning with dolls and then all forms of the decorative arts including glass, ceramics, jades, and Russian enamels. Her enthusiasm and knowledge allowed her to build an extremely diverse collection with objects from periods spanning ancient Egypt to the 20th century. 

In 1961, as the philanthropic campaign to construct the Iowa State Center continued, Henry and Ann chose Iowa State University to house and exhibit their exceptional art collection. The donation of their art and stocks to fund the construction led to the Scheman Building housing the first campus art museum, exhibiting the Brunnier’s expansive art collection. Their initial gift became the core of the Brunnier Art Collection and continues to be exhibited and interpreted today in the Brunnier Art Museum.

Neither Henry nor Ann lived to see the opening in September 1975, but the Brunnier Art Museum continues to celebrate their generous legacy and fulfill their mission to have art available to enhance the student educational experience at Iowa State University. The Brunnier Art Museum presents changing exhibitions of contemporary visual art and historical art. The museum is intended to be of broad interest and educational value to Iowa State University and the public. 

Ann and Henry Brunnier began a cultural legacy from which evolved the University Museums now including the Brunnier Art Museum (1975), the Farm House Museum (1976), Art on Campus Collection and Program (1980), Christian Petersen Art Museum (2007) and Elizabeth and Byron Anderson Sculpture Garden (2008). Together the University Museums reflect the determination to make a dynamic contribution to the intellectual and cultural life of Iowa State University and beyond.

Today I say THANK YOU to Ann and Henry Brunnier whose thoughtful donation and generous spirit allows me to continue pursuing my passion!

~ Adrienne Gennett, Associate Curator 


IMAGES (inset and above): The first exhibition of the Henry J. Brunnier Gallery, now known as the Brunnier Art Museum, was entirely objects collected by the Brunniers. It opened in September 1975.

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