The Arts Scene in Iowa City

While Hannah and I are interns for The Englert, a lot of our job this summer has been to map out the arts ecosystem in Iowa City and to learn how to make it more accessible to the entire community instead of just a limited demographic. We have thus spent just as much time offsite visiting other arts nonprofits as we have in The Englert offices.

One of these nonprofits is Public Space One, a visual arts gallery that takes a much more DIY approach to exhibiting creative works than most other institutions in the area. It was great to talk to John Engelbrecht, PS1’s director, about the gallery’s various successes and obstacles. The Paperback Rhino, an improv group made up mostly of undergrads, regularly hosts shows at PS1 that prove to be some of the gallery’s most well attended programming. Another organization that is crucial to the gallery’s community engagement is the Center for Afrofuturist Studies, founded by recent Writers’ Workshop alum An Duplan. The Center is committed to showcasing and engaging with black art in an area of the country that is otherwise predominantly white. When Duplan moved to New York there was discussion of whether the Center should relocate as well, yet both An and PS1’s director John Engelbrecht ultimately decided that it could do more important work here in Eastern Iowa than the already flourishing New York artworld. Public Space One’s mission is to provide a location for artists and art-enthusiasts that, in turn, support the gallery through residencies, studio space, and venue rentals. In this sense, PS1 has a more dynamic relationship to the community in that the line between the audience and artists/participants is intentionally blurred.

PS1's current location on Dubuque St.
Public Space One’s current location on Dubuque St.

Yesterday we sat down with Chris Wiersema, another figure who is vital to the local arts scene. He is the founder and curator of Feed Me Weird Things at Trumpet Blossom, a series committed to bringing noise, ambient music, and other avant-garde genres to Iowa City. I went to one of these shows on Friday as a sort of primer for our conversation, and it did not disappoint. The performances ranged from the noise experimentation of Oakland-based Malocculsion that tests the limits of listenability to the much more danceable electronic music of Iowa City’s own Purcha$e.

San Francisco-based Headboggle performing at the Feed Me Weird Things series at Trumpet Blossom
San Francisco-based Headboggle performing at the Feed Me Weird Things series at Trumpet Blossom

As a grad student who only moved here four years ago, my familiarity with the recent history of the arts in Iowa City is decidedly limited. It was thus great to gain insights from Chris who has been participating in the local music scene since moving here from Chicago in 2001. He told us that the arts community has been in a prolonged period of recovery since the 2008 flood decimated most art facilities on campus. The flood, he argues, deterred young artists from moving to the city because of this lack of facilities. Yet Chris remains positive about the present and the future. He books acts for the Mission Creek and Witching Hour festivals, founded by The Englert’s executive director Andre Perry, and sees the Feed Me Weird Things series as fulfilling a lifelong passion.

These are just two examples of the myriad people and institutions we’ve been speaking with this summer. In the past month and a half, we have conducted over 40 interviews and site visits. Our main task now is to synthesize all of the information we’ve gathered into a substantive report for The Englert that details ways in which it can increase community engagement.