Johnie McMahon and Astrid Bennett manage affairs at Iowa Artisans in Iowa City (photo by Carolyn Waksman)
A combination of vision and conservatism. That’s the recipe Astrid Bennett credits for the longevity of Iowa Artisans Gallery, a fixture in downtown Iowa City celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2009.
The gallery started as the vision of 12 artists, many of them woodworkers, who desired a place to display and sell their work. These weren’t longstanding friends; in fact, many of them didn’t know one another before they came together to discuss the new venture.
“That was really something—to get 12 people on the same page about something so big,” said Bennett. Five of the original owners remain actively involved: woodworker Russell Karkowski, jeweler Don Rinner (who owns D.J. Rinner Goldsmith, which occupies about a third of the Iowa Artisans Gallery space), basket maker Earlene Giglierano, and potters Christiane Knorr and Marilyn Davis.
In keeping with the power of the arts to be transformative, the Iowa Artisans Gallery owners have transformed three unlikely spaces into beautiful stores in the past 25 years. The first location was a former mortuary on Linn Street; the second, the space on College Street formerly occupied by the hobby shop Barfunkel’s; the third and current, a former Godfather’s Pizza in a prime spot on the edge of the Pedestrian Mall on East Washington Street. Bennett thinks of it—with justification—as the best location in Iowa City.
Bennett herself wasn’t part of the original ownership team—“I was pregnant at the time so I didn’t want to stay up for those late night meetings”—but she is a co-owner now and has spent a total of about three and a half years as the gallery’s marketing and PR person, bookended around her 15 years as the manager.
“Unlike a lot of places that relied on being a co-op, we were never a co-op,” Bennett explained. “They hired a manager from the get-go.”
The manager’s position has always been a key part of the gallery’s success. Having a manager in place has taken some of the burden off of the owners (who nevertheless have put in countless unpaid hours) and has allowed for quicker decision-making and flexibility in what has been offered for sale.
Bennett’s stretch in the job saw a significant change in the disposition of the materials on offer.
“We grew from being a small operation that did very little outright purchasing of work to an organization that did 60 percent of its business in purchased work,” Bennett said. Properly calibrating the balance between work sold on consignment and work that the gallery has purchased continues to be essential.
Iowa Artisans Gallery represents approximately 200 artists from the United States and Canada with an emphasis on Midwestern artists, including about 60 from Iowa. The array of work runs the gamut—clay, metal, glass, fiber, jewelry, wood, original prints and paintings, and local music CDs. According to Bennett, the gallery is selling more than just the physical pieces of art.
“We value our relationship with our artists and believe it is really important to know the people behind what we’re selling. We sell their stories.”
Combine that with the thoughtful and balanced action by the owner group over the years—that mix of vision, which is needed for growth, and conservatism, which keeps the group grounded—and you have a cornerstone of Iowa City’s artistic and retail community. The gallery has become a destination in the same way that Prairie Lights (located about a half block away on Dubuque Street) is a destination for book lovers.
“I like it when people feel that way about the store,” Bennett said.
In addition to a loyal customer base and a constant and gratifyingly positive flow of comments from visitors, the gallery has garnered a number of awards. Iowa Artisans Gallery was designated a Top 25 Retailer of American Craft by Niche Magazine in 2007, the last year the honor was given in that form. The gallery had previously been named a Top 100 Retailer of American Craft by the magazine on multiple occasions. Iowa Artisans Gallery also historically performs well in reader polls in various publications, including the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
How does a beloved and esteemed gallery celebrate its 25th anniversary? Well, there’s a nice display in the store and the milestone was marked during the latest edition of the community’s Gallery Walk, but Bennett had another idea that at first blush might not seem so festive, though Bennett would beg to differ.
“For our 25th anniversary, I decided we would get rid of things we had accumulated over 25 years. We had a good clean-up session and it felt wonderful.”
And Bennett admits that looking back over 25 successful years feels pretty wonderful, too.
“It’s a really cool thing to think back on the many people who have been your customers, your staff— how many artists you have served, all from this little germ of an idea.”
For more information, visit Iowa Artisans Gallery.
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