By John Kenyon, executive director, Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature
When Andrea Wilson approached me five years ago with her idea of creating a space for writers in our community separate from any offered by the University of Iowa, I must admit I was a bit skeptical, if not defensive. Over a long coffee discussion, I shared with her a detailed look at the literary landscape of Iowa City and all of the things my organization, the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature was doing to make those assets more visible and accessible.
Despite this, Andrea mentioned the need for an “on ramp,” a way for people who don’t feel a part of that community to find their path, to access those riches. It was there, I thought to myself. She just hadn’t looked in the right place.
Then she built that ramp in the form of the Iowa Writers’ House. As she and her team defined what that ramp should look like, what role it should play, the Writers’ House evolved from being an idea with promise to a vital part of our literary infrastructure. She showed that people were hungry for further instruction. They desired more and different ways to connect with one another. These were things beyond the scope and mission of the UI and the City of Literature. She had found her niche, and filled it, nicely complementing what was offered by my organization and others.
But those services do not come without cost. Andrea and her team scrambled, using the house as a literary bed and breakfast that was used by many visiting writers. They scheduled workshops. They held fundraisers. But that thin margin disappeared with the onset of COVID-19. Unable to hold those workshops, to serve as a bed and breakfast, to provide meaningful in-person connections, the Writers’ House was unable to carry on in its current configuration.
We have every hope and expectation that the Iowa Writers’ House and Andrea will continue to be a part of our literary landscape in the future. This will come perhaps in another form, another space. Conversations have been underway for months about the needs of the literary community beyond the UI. Andrea has been a key part of those discussions, and the work that she and her team have done offer vital information about where those conversations need to go. Gaps have been identified, and while they won’t be filled in the same way, they will be filled.
These conversations join those that have been taking place in our community for decades about the need for space and support for writers and artists. As we all have realized over these past few weeks of isolation just how much we miss when we are not able to gather to create and to celebrate those creations, perhaps those conversations will accelerate and gain focus once we reconvene. The newly formed Iowa City Downtown Arts Alliance, of which we are proud to be a part, is an additional voice in that conversation.
In the meantime, we want to thank Andrea, associate director Alisha Jeddeloh and the team at the Iowa Writers’ House, not just for identifying a need, but for taking the rare and valuable step of actually rolling up their sleeves and doing something to meet it.