Ciao Chait: An Iowa City institution closes its doors in retirement

Final Retrospective: Benjamin Chait

Opening reception for the sixth and final artist retrospective at the gallery
Chait Galleries — Friday, June 3 at 5 p.m. (Showing through June 15).

As Chait Galleries prepares to close on June 15, everyone is asking the same question: Where will we go now? For 14 years, Chait has been the place to see art and where local artists could be seen in downtown Iowa City. Chait Galleries have shown over 1,000 local, national and international artists during their tenure. When founder Benjamin Chait talks about his upcoming retirement with the community, he says, “Most people worry that there’s nowhere else to see visual art.”

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Chait
Chait Galleries, April 2010 — photo courtesy of Benjamin Chait

Our City of Literature has seen lulls in the visual arts scene before. In 2003, Benjamin and Terri Chait committed themselves to a space that would fill that culture gap. Benjamin cites the 1883 building as aesthetic inspiration: “For me, it is all about the environment.” Chait’s sense of place developed during his time as an architect — his specialty when he moved to Iowa City in the ’70s.

Chait bought the gallery building in 1983 and opened the only locally-owned video rental store at the time; definitely the one with the best name: “That’s Rentertainment!” In 2003, Chait bought a nearby building, moved the video business to an adjacent property and sold it to an employee.

Also in 2003, Terri and Benjamin did a stylistic 180, renovating 218 E. Washington so that the ceilings were higher and the wood floors shone. Chait was realizing a dream of owning a fine arts gallery. Now, “People compare us to galleries in SoHo,” says Benjamin. Paint your walls white, add good lighting, a pedestal here and there and poof — you’re in a fancy gallery.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Chait
Chait Galleries, April 2010 — photo courtesy of Benjamin Chait

Benjamin Chait believes there’s a lot of luck involved in running a business in Iowa City. For him, real estate and business require “just a little bit of magic (or sometimes a lot); often serendipity [plays] a large part.”

He and Terri have concocted a working spell for artist and customer relations: “My commitment has always been for them to have a positive, professional, respectful relationship with our gallery,” says Benjamin, who I watched delicately unpin a nametag from the breast pocket of the six-foot-five mountain of an artist, Brian Parr, during an opening. Five minutes earlier, a staffer had brought me a brownie, saying, “I thought you might want one before I put them away.” Yes, please, and thank you.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Chait
Chait Galleries, Aug. 2004 — photo courtesy of Benjamin Chait

This is when you know you’re not in SOHO anymore. The walls might be white, but the atmosphere is warm and inviting. “The mission of the Chait Galleries has always been to make the visual arts accessible to everyone,” says Terri Miller Chait, who does most of the marketing and outreach. A few renowned artists have been shown at Chait — notably Warhol and Bogenrief — but Iowa City will sorely miss Chait’s art demos, presence at Arts Fest and annual high school juried art show. Chait Galleries even “hosted an erotic art discussion forum and exhibit several years ago, incorporating visual art and tattoo artists who had also mastered body painting, [as well as] local dance and theater groups,” says Terri, who also values the performing arts.

Some familiar spaces come up when you ask Chait’s artists where they will show downtown. Metal artist Louise Rauh said that the Iowa Artisans Gallery has been a great place to see primarily functional art. Terri Chait names “the Gallery Walk participants, Public Space One and the banks that host children’s and high school shows.” She also sees a good deal of potential in the ArtiFactory, which is run by the 501(c)(3) non-profit, Arts Iowa City. ArtiFactory is currently a series of programs bringing artistic learning opportunities to Iowa City. For now, their events happen in local businesses that donate space and time. A community arts center is included in plans for the proposed Riverfront Crossing District, though the project still requires funds and community input. Terri voiced a couple of concerns about Iowa City’s artistic future: “Few local publications seem to find information about the visual arts relevant to their mission … and with the recent vote from the City Council not to help finance the fund raising for the Balmond ped mall project, the visual arts took another blow.”

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Chait
Chait Galleries, April 2010 — photo courtesy of Benjamin Chait

Chait has hosted a spring-long program that can help you recover from this blow, and from the fact that Chait Galleries is closing. Their six part Retrospective Series has featured work by 28 different artists. The series will culminate in a final show featuring Benjamin Chait’s art. One of his initial goals in opening the galleries was to have a venue for his “Wall-Architecture” — pieces that use both 2D and 3D surface to play with a viewer’s sense of depth and space. However, the work to be shown at his June 3 opening is photographic — he now digitally prints his Midwestern landscapes onto canvas.

This is what you will find Benjamin Chait doing after June 15. In retirement, he looks forward to spending more time in his studio. In addition, both of the Chaits are excited to babysit their 18-month-old grandson, Gavin, who attended the most recent opening in footy pajamas. As for what the public can do when the Chaits retire, Terri advises that “people who love the visual arts need to support the places where it is available, for otherwise these places will slowly die away.”

Anna is a artist, teacher, and writer by day, and a treasure hunter and podcast fiend by night. She has worked at small presses on both coasts, but returned to the midwest because: the prairie. Anna will graduate from the University of Iowa with an MFA in printmaking in 2017. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 200.

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