Public Space One gets flexible with its new spaces and online programming

PS1's Autumnal Equinox Art-a-thon

Saturday, Sept. 19 at 12 p.m.;

Kymbyrly Koesters tends to the Public Space One garden in July 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Public Space One, over a variety of forms and spaces, has provided a home for art and artists in Iowa City for almost two decades. The newest chapter for the organization was just beginning as the COVID-19 pandemic reached Iowa and made in-person events and shared workspaces unsafe.

Last year, PS1 purchased two houses at 225 and 229 N Gilbert to be its new, permanent home. The new space offers opportunities for flexibility and programming that their previous location in the Wesley Center did not.

The stained glass at 229 Gilbert St. — Rachel Wachter/Little Village

After months of renovations and improvements, Public Space One was excited to activate the space and welcome events, exhibits and the community into their new home. Unfortunately, the pandemic forced those plans to be put on hold.

Through the years, however, PS1 has proven to be resilient and adaptable. The team has worked with artists to create innovative virtual and outdoor experiences, including Post Consumer Content, series of summer exhibitions featuring art made from repurposed materials. To gain better insight into the projects and presentations at PS1, Little Village caught up with Program Director Kalmia Strong via email.

What do you consider to be Public Space One’s role in the community?

PS1 presents, hosts and nurtures critical, experimental and innovative art and artists from Iowa City and beyond. We are a place for those artists to share their work and for the community to experience and engage with it. We also are an open and inclusive place that tries to provide resources (whether space, a platform, shared equipment, training, etc.) for anyone in our community who wants to present, develop or encounter creative endeavors to do that. I consider these two roles to be essentially intertwined.

Finally, we advocate for the importance of art — as something that every human needs and deserves, as a mode of work that deserves to be celebrated and valued, and as a space where ideas, tools, practices and structures that we need to create a just and liberated world can be imagined, tried and enacted. (It sounds grandiose but I believe it!)

An early outreach event for PS1 in 2004, co-organized by United Action for Youth. — courtesy of Public Space One

In what ways has the pandemic impacted operations at Public Space One and that relationship with the community?

We planned to officially open our new spaces this past spring and summer, so it was definitely disappointing to not be able to do that, as well as to have to cancel, postpone or go virtual with other big projects like gallery exhibitions and our Center for Afrofuturist Studies summer residencies.

We really miss sharing (physical) space with people and their art, and all of the good that comes out of that. It’s especially hard to not be able to offer these new spaces to all of the folks who invested in them over the past year-plus, and to throw open the doors to people who are learning about PS1 for the first time. Fortunately, thanks to the creativity and flexibility of so many people involved, we’ve been able to adapt and continue to share space and community around art and art-making both outdoors and online.

Recycled trash is incorporated in artist Caitlin Mary Margarett’s Post Consumer Content installation at Public Space One, July 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

What interesting or creative changes have you made to the Public Space One business model since the pandemic hit?

Like many others, we’ve moved some of our programming online, including print and media arts workshops that ended up still being great despite being on Zoom, several video programs and artist conversations that were live-streamed and an interactive virtual gallery space mapped onto our actual gallery (made by Austin Caskie) that hosted two exhibitions. One of our CAS residents, Antoine Williams, did an amazing job enacting a brand new project, Black Fusionist Society, that happened completely virtually and invited participation and audience from all over the country. Simple things like doing a series of virtual “studio check-ins” with interested artists have turned out to be really special, though — bringing together folks who might not have crossed paths IRL and providing inspiration and community for artists feeling disconnected.

We’ve also embraced the ability to do outdoor activities, counting ourselves very lucky to have our new space on the Northside that has a lovely big yard. Pre-pandemic we had already planned to have an artist-gardener-in-residence (Kymbyrly Koester) and a five-week outdoor installation series (Post-Consumer Content, curated by Louise Fisher), so those ended up being sort of the centerpiece of our summer programming for folks local to Iowa City. We’ll have some more outdoor artwork in October for Gallery Walk and leading up to the election.

How have you adapted your plans for the future of Public Space One for the duration of the pandemic and beyond?

We had planned to celebrate the grand opening of our new space on the Northside with a 24-hour in-person event. This has now become a 24-hour virtual “art-a-thon” on Sept. 19-20 which will be livestreamed (and with a couple of small IRL socially distanced happenings), and will be focused on celebrating the work that artists and arts organizers do on a daily basis and raising money to support artists who have been impacted by this year’s challenges, and to keep PS1 on track. This is an ambitious undertaking, but I’m really excited about the opportunity to do something that celebrates the daily-ness of art and is crazy and fun.

This was already in-process because of all of the big changes PS1 experienced in 2019, but we’re also taking the opportunity to reflect and take action on how we can organize ourselves to both be resilient and to make sure that what we do and the way we do it reflects our values and supports the communities we are all a part of. Of course, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about how the pandemic will impact our communities in the longer term, but I feel confidence in the many amazing PS1 folks past/present/future and in the value of our core activities that will continue to be empowering, supportive and imaginative, and I hope support a future that reimagines many of the structures and habits that were a problem before the pandemic as well as during it.

How can people help and support Public Space One?
Becoming a sustaining member (setting up a monthly donation of $5-30/month) is the number-one helpful thing! Recurring donations, even small ones, help keep us going on a daily basis and allow us the flexibility to develop and invest in programs and resources that are responsive to community needs.

We also always welcome folks to get involved in one of our projects — all of what we are able to do is through community effort and the hands, ideas and time of many, many people who both share experience/expertise and learn while doing what we do together!

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