The Towncrest Area Artists Group studios and gallery started off as a “good accident,” owner Bella Vine said.
Vine, sculptor and painter, just needed a space in Iowa City where she could create her art.
But other artists Vine knew discovered his plans and wanted a place too.
So she rented out old dental practices at 1041 Arthur St. and started TAAG Studios in 2014, offering studios for rent, community arts education and a gallery in the eastern part of Iowa City. Seven years later, 18 artists are members of TAAG Studios.
âIt’s become something that a lot of artists need,â said Vine.
Now, with the help of someone new, Vine is looking to expand TAAG studios now that it has reopened after its COVID-19 hiatus. She wants it to be a hub of the Eastside community, accessible to everyone, a place where art can thrive away from downtown Iowa City.
TAAG Studios Hangs On During COVID-19 Shutdown, Reopens With New Idea
TAAG Studios reopened to the public on November 4 with a new exhibit, “Life Goes On”.
Being able to reopen at all was the real feat.
When the pandemic first hit, Vine said many artists could no longer afford studio space.
âWe only had three studios rented,â Vine said. “It wasn’t enough to cover the rent or our bills or anything.”
Vine didn’t want TAAG Studios to shut down. Neither did his daughter.
Vine’s daughter has repeatedly loaned him money to pay the studio bills.
âIt was like, ‘Well here mom. You can’t let this place go down. And every once in a while someone would call and say,’ I desperately need a studio, ‘Vine said. “So little by little it helped me. But there were times when I was like, ‘Oh my God, you might have $ 5 in the bank for the studios.’
According to Vine, TAAG Studios did not receive any COVID-19 financial assistance, but had enough to pay what it owed each month.
Still, many TAAG programs are on hiatus due to the pandemic, such as the art classes Vine paid to teach, often purchasing the supplies herself.
The studio also offers a mentoring program that Vine wants to resume soon. It started in the studio’s first year and has since mentored 14 people. Vine matched a student with an artist, or they were part of a group that met after school every week.
According to Vine, some of the students weren’t just helped with their art, they got help with homework and were often fed too – something Vine found a necessity as many of them were. from food insecure families.
But Vine isn’t just waiting to bring back those programs.
Instead, she’s embarked on a new project, which she hopes can create a sense of community on the east side and involve the whole city: an art competition.
âThe open door for the community to experience artâ: becoming more visible on the Eastside
When Kai Kiser met Vine in June, it was because they wanted to rent a studio.
Kiser, whose pronouns are they / them, is a digital artist and writer.
The two started talking and Kiser, whose career has been in nonprofit work, began to use their expertise to help Vine and the studio.
TAAG Studios’ mission statement has always been âthe open door to the community to experience artâ. It is a studio which presents itself as built by artists, for artists, and which makes art accessible to the public.
With Kiser’s help, the two described what the area is and are using that information to create visibility for the studio.
Kiser advises Vine on how to find donors so TAAG can provide free programming, how to locate and use volunteers, and how to collaborate with other nonprofits.
It’s a slow process, but Kiser said they’ve already seen Vine’s ideas start to “take root.”
Kiser will also work with Vine on community art contests, which will be free and open to everyone. The premiere is scheduled for early June.
Vine hopes to involve as many local businesses as possible, either as sponsors of the art competition or as distributors of information about it.
âIt’s very important and it brings the community together,â she said.
Vine wants the contest to go to a jury and wants Iowa City involved in some way – a connection according to Vine is important to people in the Towncrest area.
âI want people to be so excited about this,â she said. “Some people because they are paid attention, some because they can express themselves for some reason, some because they are dying to do something creative.”
TAAG Studios creates community of artists, offers arts education locally
There are many reasons why an artist would need a studio. The mediums they work with could potentially be hazardous to their health or cause damage to their homes.
Vine needs to think about how the artists will work in a coherent way. It could pair artists working in similar mediums. Or combine them according to the personalities. Currently, TAAG has four studios, each shared by two members.
Ashley Gillette is a painter who shares a studio with a good friend and writer.
She has been with TAAG for a year and finds the location convenient as her full time job is in the Towncrest area.
Although COVID-19 put artists at bay when they worked at the studio, âLife Goes Onâ brought them closer, Gillette said. And now she was able to meet all the artists who are part of TAAG Studios.
âI like that it’s like a community,â she said. “It’s within a nice neighborhood community, but it’s an artist community itself within the building.”
As a member of TAAG Studios, artists can store art there, use carpentry, and benefit from Vine’s help. She sometimes takes artists’ portfolios to galleries in places like Kansas City, Chicago, Tucson or Denver.
Karl Sternberg has lived in the Towncrest area since 2010. He previously had an art studio above Vine Tavern & Eatery on Prentiss Street before he had to move.
It was Sternberg’s wife who found the appeal of Vine artists when TAAG first opened.
He applied for a studio and met Vine.
Sternberg works with charcoal, a medium that can get messy.
In college, Sternberg used to work alongside artists. Thanks to the TAAG studios, Sternberg can live this experience again.
âGetting into an environment like this, where you can actually talk to other artists and see what they’re doing and see how they’re doing and working with them like they might work with you, is pretty important to me,” Sternberg said. “For me, it gets to the point where, if you don’t have that, you tend to stray from what you’re used to doing.”
How TAAG can reach new artists outside of downtown Iowa City
There is a waiting list of 10 artists who hope to get a studio at TAAG. But beyond its community of artists, TAAG Studios sees itself as a vital space for the Towncrest community.
âIt’s a growing space, which slowly grows, but it grows,â Vine said. âAnd there are a lot of companies here. It is very necessary for the people here, I think, to have an art space. Everything is downtown.
This includes the University of Iowa, the ArtiFactory and the Iowa Artisan’s Gallery, Vine noted.
Kiser has lived in the Towncrest area for five years and said it was important to have services like TAAG nearby. Its location allows TAAG Studios to access marginalized communities in Iowa City, Kiser said.
Iowa City, Kiser said, is a place that celebrates art, but art is often linked to “wealth, a certain aesthetic” and “college.”
âThis place, what it is doing now and what it intends to do in the future, it has the capacity to give a voice to people who want that voice, who want to express themselves as individuals, who want to express their message, who want to learn the art, who want to learn that they can do it, that life is not only the bare minimum and can also show the rest of the community, the beauty that can come out of people who are often invisible, âKiser said.
Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle, and the arts at the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Contact her at [email protected] or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.