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ARTicle: Interview with Public Space One Director John Engelbrecht

Skye Carrasco

News of a potential lease termination for Public Space One (129 E. Washington), raised a lot of questions about the future of non-commercial art downtown. Here, we ask PS1 Director John Engelbrecht about the past, present and future of the space. The interview was conducted over email.

Little Village: The news of the potential end of Public Space One’s (PS1) lease of the Jefferson building has caused quite a stir. To begin, I’d like to ask you about what the lease arrangement has been. How long you have been leasing the space and what does the current upheaval mean for the immediate future of PS1?

John Engelbrecht: Our current space in the basement of the Jefferson Building has been “ours” for nearly five years, though we have never paid rent or utilities. The space came about through some work done by the James Gang in 2006-2007. The James Gang (PS1’s parent organization which also sponsors several other arts organizations in Iowa City) has always been closely affiliated with the University (though never officially), and through some connections at that time, a verbal agreement of sorts was worked out with the University Foundation. The Business Office of the University was also involved on some level and for the past five years our space has been overseen and managed by Dan Black with MidwestOne Bank.

Skye Carrasco performs alongside installations in the gallery space.

Skye Carrasco performs alongside installations in the gallery space.

This has led to a unique arrangement and environment for us and our space, allowing us certain freedoms (and constraints) that come with an underground (figuratively and literally) location. We don’t have to abide by the University’s rules for what we can and can’t show in our gallery, and we don’t get any funding from them.

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Everything may change in the next week or two, but for now the decision for us to vacate the space has not been made official. We are in the process of meeting with the University Foundation and Business Office, having an open discussion about who we are and what we provide to the community and the University. We feel that they should be able to see value in PS1, not just in the more intangible value of a unique cultural entity for downtown Iowa City, but in concrete areas that match some of their objectives like providing an alcohol-free destination serving a large student population.

LV: This time of transition for you is naturally a point to stop and reflect on what PS1 has become in the years since its founding. Could you share a little bit about how PS1 came into existence and how that relates to the kind of programming that it has become known for?

JE: Public Space One has been an Iowa City entity (like its parent group the James Gang) for over 10 years now. It has existed in three locations (four if you count ps·z and the Zenzic Press, throttling full-speed ahead in the Wesley Center). It was started above the Deadwood in 2002, when the space was offered to some theatre students for a one-off play production by Deadwood owner Jim Bell. They kept doing productions, started inviting musicians to play and putting art on the walls. psONE (their preferred way of spelling it) was there for three or four years. In 2005-2006 it had a short tenancy above MidwestOne bank. This time was brief but led to the connection with Dan Black and the agreement to move to the old Arts Iowa City space in the basement of the Jefferson Building.

The years in the basement of the Jefferson Building have additionally influenced what we do. In this space we have followed what others have done before us and used it as an installation space, a place for “emerging artists” and a place to program our own crazy ideas.

 Guests attend an opening for Pete Schulte's "Oceans and Sky."

Guests attend an opening for Pete Schulte’s “Oceans and Sky.”

Currently we balance our own internal programming (curated art exhibitions and community programs like Iowa City Community Supported Art [ICCSA], SOUP, Free @rt School workshops and music shows) with what comes to us through the community. We aim to balance each exhibition season with local, emerging artists (including students), and artists from somewhere else.

LV: To say that PS1 runs on a shoestring budget is probably generous, and to suggest that it has plans to turn a profit this year is beside the point. Could you talk a little bit about why, in the absence of a profit motive, PS1 exists? Why does Iowa City need a venue to show art without commercial pretensions?

JE: A shoestring budget is exactly how we talk about it, but it is a budget that we are slowly growing. The addition of ps·z and Zenzic Press (and ICCSA on a smaller level) have tripled the kind of economy we have dealt with in the past. These new initiatives have led to an increased need for operating support and a system in place beyond the looseness at which we had formerly operated.

“Absence of a profit motive,” I like how that’s phrased. And I could go on about why Iowa City should embrace a noncommercial space, starting with the simple fact that art has a life outside a capital-based system. It is bigger than capital and has been around longer.

We feel very strongly that art without any commercial aspirations or monetary value is just as (if not much more) important than commodified art, but it is an idea we often struggle with. We do hold an annual art auction, a “cheap art” sale and run a program (the ICCSA) that does just that: commodifies art. We aim to run these programs in a fashion that makes the needs of the monetary side of what we do transparent, offsetting the rest of our noncommercial existence while highlighting or paying artists in the meantime.

In general, we would like to grow what we do, if only to support creative minds doing innovative projects in our fair city. In this regard, our motive is to present, fund or otherwise support artists, performers, creative people of all types. Personally, I want more strange people doing smart, weird, wonderful things somewhere close by.

LV: What have you liked about your current space? What have been the challenges of your current space? This might be premature, but what sort of space do you imagine moving into once this space is no longer available?

JE: I really like where we are located, how we are hidden but right in the center of the city. I like to mythologize our space and how it connects to other spaces using the story of an underground tunnel system, a system that is very much alive and well in Iowa City. There are times when some conduits of the system close (when Arts Iowa City moved from below the Savings and Loan building to its ultimate demise beneath Wells Fargo) and others open (ps·z and house galleries like Keokuk & Keokuk and the BS Gallery).

The challenges of the current space include a crumbling ceiling, water leaking, clanking pipes, etc. (There was a reason we got free rent!) We have also struggled to get some sort of street presence, something people could see when they walked by.

Serious discussion of moving is a bit premature, though the idea of vacating opens up a lot of potential. As for the music venue, we have access to a performance space twice as large as our current one at ps·z (the lunchroom-auditorium at the Wesley Center will be part of ps·z once the Free Lunch Program moves to the Crisis Center at the end of the year). Music, theatre, readings, etc. are all already happening at z. But there isn’t an obvious answer for exhibition space at ps·z. We will hold some exhibitions there, but nothing can have its own dedicated space, at least in the next short while.

PS1 has served as a remote studio for KRUI. Here, Das Racist vistits the 2011 PS1 Mission Creek Lounge

PS1 has served as a remote studio for KRUI. Here, Das Racist vistits the 2011 PS1 Mission Creek Lounge

If anything, I hope the potential of losing this space allows for more exposure and opportunities to present what we do to a broader community. I would love to find a street level venue for contemporary, noncommercial art in downtown Iowa City. I do not doubt the value of what we provide, the brand we administer (to put it in business terms) or what we could do with the right resources and support. It’s really a matter of connecting with the right people to find an adequate next step.

LV: The idea of a storefront space for PS1 is certainly exciting to me (the idea of any kind of space downtown where I don’t have to spend money to enjoy is exciting). How do you see the role of a more visible nonprofit art space in downtown life, especially in a college town like this one?

JE: I would love the opportunity to take our brand of art out of the basement. I think there is this notion that a certain kind of work fits within our space (perhaps due to the nature of our space and lack of resources, this attitude is perpetuated).

The idea of a visible, accessible non-profit arts space is exciting. The problem with downtown is the real estate premium. Without an entity like the city or a private group of business owners decidedly saying, “We are going to support this thing that enriches the fabric of our town though won’t turn a profit,” it’s not going to happen. The city wants this, the downtown district wants this. But the economics are problematic.

My hope is that whatever happens with the current space, people will realize the contemporary, non-commercial visual (and other) arts are valuable beyond the dollar and help make this a real place instead of just a “college town.”

Brian Prugh is a graduate student studying painting at the University of Iowa. He also writes art criticism for the Iowa City Arts Review, found online at iowacityartsreview.com.


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