The Makers Loft, the Ped Mall store selling the work of local artists and artisans, is changing management. Simeon Talley, the store’s founder, will no longer be involved in the store’s day-to-day operations, including handling finances and dealing with the artists whose work The Makers Loft sells on consignment. He will remain its primary owner.
In an interview with Little Village on Friday afternoon, Talley explained his decision, which came after people learned artworks that had been on consignment at his store in the Coral Ridge Mall, Made In Iowa, were left behind in the otherwise empty mall space when that store closed in late August.
“It’s become apparent that mistakes I’ve made created a sense of mistrust around the store and what we’re trying to do,” Talley said. “That’s really unfortunate, and I’m terribly, deeply sorry and want to apologize for that. But I want [The Makers Loft] to move forward. I want it to be successful.”
“And in order to do that, people need to see that I understand things weren’t handled appropriately and that changes are being made.”
The artists who had put their work on consignment at Made In Iowa didn’t know what had happened until Kristi Pearson, an artist who was the store’s manager until January, wrote a Facebook post about it on Tuesday evening.
Pearson only learned about the situation when a friend messaged her to ask why a decorative piece by Pearson was still on display in the store’s window, even though Made In Iowa had gone out of business.
Pearson, like others who dealt with Made In Iowa, didn’t know the store had closed. She called the mall.
“They were really glad to hear from me,” Pearson said. “They recognized my name, because I had been the manager.”
Pearson had worked at the mall store even before it opened its doors for the first time, renovating the space to get it ready for its November 2018 opening.
“They said Simeon hadn’t been responding to them, so in September they’d taken possession of what had been left in the space as abandoned property,” Pearson said. “They were hoping I could help get the work back to the artists.”
Pearson didn’t know what had been left behind, or who had made it, but immediately volunteered to take responsibility for reuniting the work and the artists.
“I really want to highlight that the mall does not have to give the art back to the artists,” Pearson said. “They are choosing to. They are being very gracious about this. Because in an abandonment situation they would normally sell the items to make money to cover the expenses of clearing out a space.”
“They are taking a hit for the community.”
Pearson estimates that over 50 different artists have work still at the mall. She’s been able to identify most, but not all, of the artists involved. Pearson has a list of artists whose work she’s identified on her Facebook page. She said that artists can email her for instructions on how to collect their work at email@example.com. She would also like to hear from anyone who has contact information for the artists on her list that she hasn’t been able to reach yet.
Coral Ridge Mall management told Pearson the space needs to be cleared out by the end of October, because a new business will occupy it in November.
Speaking on Friday afternoon, Talley acknowledged his failures.
“I was not as communicative with the mall, or even vendors in the Made In Iowa store, as I should have been,” Talley said. “That’s on me.”
“To be honest, when the decision was made to close the mall store there was a sense of embarrassment and shame around it,” he added. “I was torn. You go out and convince people that this concept will work and people are excited. And then to go back a few months later, and tell them, ‘I was wrong. I can’t make this work.’ I had a sense of shame around that.”
“That probably contributed to my lack of communication, my inability to communicate appropriately.”
Talley said he had transferred some items from the Coralville store to The Makers Loft, and had intended to do that with all the stock.
“I didn’t get things done as quickly as I could,” he said. “I didn’t put a sense of enough urgency around it.”
The concept of a store that provided a platform for local artists and artisans is one Talley has been passionate about for a long time.
Talley moved to Iowa City from his home state of Ohio to work for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and decided to stay after the election was over. While working at a number of different jobs—including a stint at Little Village in the sales department, from July 2015 to January 2017—he emerged as a leader on the local arts scene and an entrepreneur. He played a central role in creating Flyover Fest and the Middle of Nowhere music fest.
The Makers Loft grew out of an earlier project. In 2017, he and John Engelbrecht founded RADinc — the name was an acronym for “Retail Art Design Incubator” — in a downtown building on E Washington Street. At the time, real estate developers were considering demolishing the building, so the pair was able to get an affordable, albeit short-term, lease for RADinc.
The Makers Loft was launched in 2018, in the same space RADinc had occupied. But since it was an upstairs location, there was no foot traffic, and the shop received limited attention. Talley made plans to open a pop-up version of the business — under the more mall-shopper-friendly name Made In Iowa — at the Coral Ridge Mall during the holidays.
After a successful holiday season, he decided to extend Made In Iowa’s stay at the mall.
Talley said that cash-flow issues started becoming evident in March. There were problems paying vendors and artists on time. There were problems paying staff on time.
“Things became challenging and troubling,” he recalled.
Pearson said these issues were present well before March, and Talley’s failure to properly address them led her to quitting in January, after working at the original Makers Loft and Made In Iowa since early summer 2018.
Despite the problems in Coralville, Talley pushed forward with opening the new Makers Loft on the Ped Mall.
“My thinking was, let me hurry up and try to get the Iowa City store open,” he explained. “Then maybe it could help fix some of the cash-flow problems at the other store.”
“But that wasn’t the case.”
The Ped Mall store had its grand opening ceremony on May 9. The ceremony was well-attended, but other circumstance made it unlikely the store would generate quick profits.
The University of Iowa’s summer break was just weeks away. Every summer, the city’s population decreases as students head home. Downtown becomes less crowded; retail sales slump.
Compounding this annual downturn was the construction on the Ped Mall renovation project that ripped up pavement, fenced off large areas and generally discouraged some people from visiting the Ped Mall.
The construction near The Makers Loft has finished and the students have returned, but the store hasn’t established itself on a firm footing yet, according to Talley.
“We’ve got our challenges at the Iowa City store,” he said. “But we think it’s a concept — a space — that should exist.”
Talley also said all the recent problems has forced him to realize that his talents lie in creating concepts “and helping get things started, getting things off the ground, instigating things.”
“But it’s a very different skill set being the general manager, the executive who keeps things going,” he continued. “And I’ve found difficulty in the step that comes next.”
Talley is turning over responsibility for the store’s operations to Jeremy Ziegenhorn, who has been managing the Artists Gallery Wall at The Makers Loft since the store opened in May.
Ziegenhorn worked with Talley at the original Makers Loft and Made In Iowa, and was responsible for renovating the space on the Ped Mall before the store opened. Ziegenhorn also just finished renovating the store’s large basement, making it into a venue that can host a variety of classes and performances.
Ziegenhorn hadn’t been responsible the store finances or its business relations with vendors and artists. But when Talley asked him on Thursday night to take on the responsibility of operating the store, he agreed to do it.
“I came on board with this venture, because the idea of an all-local Iowa store was something that a lot of my friends and I had talked about, and its something the art community had wanted for a long time,” Ziegenhorn said.
“People still want it to happen. I want to facilitate that. I’ve put my heart into it, I’ve put my savings into this. I’ve gone without pay, because we’re trying to do something here that I truly, wholeheartedly believe in.”
Ziegenhorn describes himself as obsessive when it comes to making sure things are kept in good order, and he hopes that will help him rebuild the community’s confidence in The Makers Loft.
“Being able to pay people on time is probably the biggest issue I see, but I also think transparency in what we do is a key thing,” he said. “People have to be able to feel comfortable with placing their art — which they’ve put their love into — in someone else’s hands. They want to have them care for it like it’s their own.”
“I’m an artist myself, so I know the importance of that. And so I practice that kind of care with other people’s art all the time.”
When Little Village told Pearson that Ziegenhorn was taking over day-to-day running of The Makers Loft, she said he was a good choice.
“I was the one who hired Jeremy,” Pearson said. “He’s a solid guy.”
Still, both Talley and Ziegenhorn recognize the challenges they face going forward. There was a lot of anger directed towards Talley and The Makers Loft on social media after Pearson’s Oct. 15 post describing what had happened at Made In Iowa.
Pearson said she had taken care to use measured language on Facebook, specifically because she wasn’t interested in stirring up anger or controversy. She just wanted to reunite the artists with their work.
“My concern was making sure artists don’t get burned in this situation,” Pearson said. “I don’t want this to discourage artists in the community from trying to sell their art in the future.”
As for The Makers Loft, Pearson said she still believes a store focused on local artwork is important for the arts scene in eastern Iowa.
“It would make me so happy if the store gets to blossom,” she said.