The Iowa City Artists Registry, which the city’s Neighborhood Outreach division maintains as part of the Public Art Program, is intended to assist local artists by connecting them with the community as well as art organizations and venues. But since it went online in February, the registry is still struggling to get attention from both the public and local artists.
The registry is a growing database of visual, performing, literary and multi-disciplinary artists that either reside in Iowa City, or whose work is created, performed or displayed in Iowa City.
Approximately two years ago, the Public Art Advisory Committee brainstormed ways to feature local artists and make their information available for the public.
“So the artists registry was created,” said Marcia Bollinger, whose work as the city’s neighborhood outreach coordinator includes the Public Art Program.
The registry helps people to find local artists, artists to find collaborators and organizations and venues to find performers. It also connects artists to funding through the Iowa City Public Art Program.
For singer-songwriter and Iowa City native David Zollo, the promotion of local artists is a mutualistic relationship, an opportunity for the people to discover the arts. After seeing an email about it, Zollo signed up out of a sense of community.
“Iowa City is always a town that’s thought about its artists of all kinds, of all sorts, so I think just the fact it’s there is comforting,” he said.
Miriam Alarcón Avila, a photographer and visual artist, echoed Zollo’s sentiments.
“I think that’s something we have to celebrate,” she said. “Not many cities have interest or the desire to put a list like this.”
A little clunky
But after six months, the Iowa City Artists Registry has warning signs of desiccation. Most apparent is the opaque interface. Hosted on the city’s website, the registry isn’t intuitive or friendly to new users.
“The entire city website is kinda old-fashioned,” Avila said. “I think it would be really cool if we can see the artists in a platform that’s a little bit more modern and easy to search.”
Avila uses the registry often to see other local artists and their work, specifically fellow Latino artists. In her opinion, it would help to add an artist description, a portrait and images of their work.
None of this is news to Bollinger, who was the first to point out the website’s shortfalls.
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“There was many cities that have similar websites. Some are more sophisticated than ours,” she said. “It’s just a little clunky from my perspective. It doesn’t quite work as smoothly as it could.”
But until the city overhauls its website, the possibility of registry improvements is limited. There is work being done to clarify the database’s search engine, but other suggestions for improvement, like having multiple images per artist, are not possible with the website’s current capabilities.
Bollinger sees the limited community awareness of the registry as an ongoing problem. The Public Art Program has sent out emails, social media posts and press releases, even running an announcement on City Channel 4. But despite these efforts, Bollinger knows many artists that haven’t registered.
“Connecting with all the artists is probably the biggest challenge,” she said. “The biggest need we have is to allow other arts organizations to understand it’s publicly accessible, and you can query out artists, you can browse the artists.”
Beyond technical improvements, Bollinger plans for more outreach and to encourage organizations like the Englert Theatre, Riverside Theatre, Summer of the Arts and Public Space One to use the registry.
A gap in the local arts community
Among its possible uses, the registry could serve underrepresented communities in Iowa City by highlighting Black, Indigenous and POC artists.
“I think that would be a great category,” she said. “Many organizations are trying to promote, highlight, hire Black artists, and I think it’s really important to give an opportunity to Black, brown, Native American artists.”
Avila immigrated to Iowa City from Mexico in 2002 with her family to pursue education. Both her children have attended the University of Iowa.
“I found that it was a beautiful place, very family friendly,” she said. Despite Iowa City’s liberal reputation, Avila said she still faces discrimination and a looming feeling of alienation.
“It’s amazing to see how rich and beautiful the arts community is in the area, but when you go to see the events and shows, you don’t see a lot of minorities. You barely see them,” Avila said. “I’m always looking in the audience and I’m looking, ‘Where is the Black community? Where is the brown community?’”
The art community, in her opinion, is largely dominated by university crowds and high-income individuals, cloistered away from the rest of Iowa City.
“The hardcore workers, they are serving in the restaurants, doing the dishes, cleaning the hotels. They don’t have that access,” she said.
Her photography focuses on the Latino community, documenting workers and immigrants in Iowa. She hopes this will bridge the gap between minority communities and the arts community. And the registry is one pillar of that bridge.
“It has to be an effort, you know, like an integration. It comes from two ways,” she said.
A boost for the next generation
The registry could also help emerging artists find an audience.
In the analog age prior to the internet’s proliferation, Zollo was breaking out as a performing artist.
“Back when I started you made a tape, a cassette tape, and you know, sent it out with all that 20th century jives that you had to deal with,” he said.
But as part of a college-town band, he had a built-in audience and momentum.
“One of things I most love about Iowa City is just how supportive it is of art [and] artists. The idea that being a performing artist would be a vocation when I started in the early ’90s was not that strange in Iowa City. In a lot of the country it would have been,” Zollo said.
After performing for the past decades, Zollo is well-known in Iowa. He doesn’t need the exposure, but for other artists trying to make a name for themselves, the registry could be a valuable tool.
“I really hope to hear that people, or younger artists, people that are getting started, are finding that it’s a resource that works from that place. That would be really encouraging to hear that,” he said. “I think it’s very cool.”
And Bollinger agrees that both categories are thoughtful inclusions, adding that as the city redesigns its system, it will give them more flexibility to implement changes like this.