ARTicle: Art on Demand at the Iowa City Public Library

Bernard "BJ" Ellis and Angela Miller check out the ICPL's collection

Where does art live? If you’re in the Iowa City area, can abide by some very generous checkout times and can offer it the promise of shelter for a month or so, art can live with you, thanks to the Iowa City Public Library’s Art-To-Go Collection. Also, if you’re a local artist, it might just be your work that is finding shelter through the annual ICPL Art Purchase Prize contest, which will be accepting submissions during the month of September.

Candice Smith has been a librarian at the Iowa City Public Library for eleven years and currently directs the Art-To-Go program, which since the late ̒60s has had the radical notion of dispensing framed art the way one might dispense literature. Smith is also the coordinator of this year’s annual Art Purchase Prize competition and the perfect person to ask: Why rent art at all?

“You can bring it into your home! Our collection doesn’t approach all that you might find in a gallery, but we have prints from all schools, styles and eras of art,” Smith explains. “We have a lot of replicated works you’d find in galleries, but here they’re nicely matted and framed and there’s no cost to the library patron.

“There’s so much out there that’s hard to see and we can provide quite a bit.” she adds, noting that, “Not everybody can get out to galleries to experience the work.”

On his spoken-word album Dead City Radio, William Burroughs says in his dry-leaves-outside-the-bar croak that “art is spilling out of its frames into subway graffiti. Will it stop there?” He asks. “When art leaves the frame and the written word leaves the page—not merely the physical frame and page but the frames and pages of assigned categories—a basic disruption of reality itself occurs. The literal realization of art.” What Burroughs doesn’t say is that this disruption of reality as we know it might be a good thing, that taking on the role of the gallery operator, the docent, the stylist, the special designer, might have a positive effect on patrons that is in keeping with the ethos of the Iowa City Public Library.

“Renting art is important,” Smith says. “It’s an important part of learning and enjoyment which the public library strives to provide: information and sharing with a commitment to lifelong learning and growing.”

Smith helms the library’s art acquisition quest through its Purchase Prize. “Each year we solicit artists who live in the area or work here or exhibit here,” Smith says. “They can submit two images of work that they want considered for judging by an art advisory committee of six people.” Pricing is set by the artists, but should be under $400 to enable the ICPL to purchase multiple works. She mentions that they are always looking for people to fill in as part of the advisory committee: “Artists, teachers of art, gallery owners—we have all sorts of art-related occupations. If chosen, they serve three years and it’s a volunteer position, unpaid.”

Competition for the prize is fairly stiff, but not prohibitively: “We usually get between 20-40 submissions. From those [the committee] decide[s] which images they’d like to see in person, and from there which ones they’d like to purchase.”

With regard to format, there are some limitation, as she explains, the committee is “looking for all 2D art—it has to be able to be framed and covered in plexiglass. It’s a circulation thing. It helps keep the art itself preserved.” If readers have any questions about format or want to submit an image for consideration, these should be sent to Candice at

When I ask Smith about the many spheres art inhabits, ranging from the participatory, free public art spaces of Iowa City to the expensive dealer culture one might find enveloping private collections galleries, she says, “There has to be the unattainable to heighten and drive that desire towards art, but there also has to be accessibility… You have to have a free, accessible ward of the relatively attainable. We’re lucky that Iowa City has such a diverse, vibrant public art community. Our Art in Public is really burgeoning—they’ll say, yeah, let’s let people decorate those statues or those benches. You certainly don’t see that everywhere.” And I never have, even when I, your humble arts guide, lived in Chicago and New York City.

The Art-To-Go Collection and its Art Purchase Prize provide inroads to art for the Iowa City community. With a mix of local work and expertly presented classics, the art rental system adds a third dimension to the standard presentation model wherein art is displayed in certain designated locations—heck, even street art appears in presumed-permanent locations, however dubiously—and the viewer takes it in from there. In this case, the viewer can literally take in the art, and not only stare at it but assume the creative role of the curator, choosing from a sweeping body of work and then deciding where the art goes in a home gallery.

“Half our works are by local artists,” Smith tells me. “We keep about 370-400 items in the collection and right now it’s more posters/prints and less art by local artists, but we’ve [also] made a serious effort to repair original art… It’s one of the highest checked out collections in the library. There might be one or two other libraries in the state that do that, and other libraries that offer this often charge. And we don’t. Having started so long ago, it must have been a tremendously forward thinking thing to do.”

Checking out art is about a lot more than just letting it crash at your pad and pay you for cable if it finds itself watching TV. “Come on in and check out the bins,” Smith gladly requests. “And if you’re a local artist here interested in submitting, check out our website or fliers (available at the library) … More people should be sharing art if they can! It costs a lot to have things framed or repaired, and we’re extremely lucky to have grants every year to help with the Purchase Prize and the art, so we’re glad for those people who make this possible and for the people who make renting art such an important part of the Iowa City Public Library.”

So, Iowa Citians, go home. Because that’s where art lives.

Russell Jaffe is filling in for R.A.D Wudnaughton, who was last spotted being used as filling for a particularly dangerous oversized snack.

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