IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Decades after the time when Johnson County was nothing more than wilderness and hunting grounds for Native American tribes, one historic building in Iowa City is being reclaimed as the future site of Indigenous art, history and culture.
Indigenous Peoples Art Gallery and Café has a new home at 10 S. Gilbert St., where its founder, Dawson Davenport, aspires to present an array of Indigenous art in a state that gets its name from a Native American tribe.
The announcement was made the by Indigenous Peoples Art Gallery and Café’s Facebook page in late August.
The building was home to Iowa City’s First Unitarian Church for more 100 years until its move to Coralville in 2017.
Davenport is a member of the Meskwaki Nation in Iowa, the state’s only federally recognized tribe, and an artist whose work includes a contribution to “We the Interwoven, Volume 2” and founder of the Indigenous Arts Alliance, for which Davenport is in the process of getting a nonprofit designation.
“I think it’s every artist’s dream, but even just as an Indigenous Meskwaki person,” Davenport told the Press-Citizen about having his own gallery. “I get to share my story with whoever wants to come in here. But also, you get tired of my voice, I can bring 570 other stories here.”
In 2019, the same year Davenport graduated from the University of Iowa, he founded the Indigenous Peoples Art Gallery and Café, temporarily housed at 112½ E. Washington St. in downtown Iowa City before Davenport vacated the space and later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, transitioned into hosting virtual programming.
During the pandemic, the gallery and café held virtual poetry readings and live interviews featuring Indigenous people.
As social distancing requirements began to loosen in Iowa, Davenport said he began seeking another space in Iowa City, even exploring the possibility of setting up in Riverside Theatre’s former home at219 N. Gilbert St., now The James Theater.
While Davenport secured a room to hold the art gallery and café at Public Space One’s Close House — another organization also utilizing the newer PS1 space is the LGBTQ Iowa Archives & Library — the idea to have his own space remained, he said.
When the opportunity presented itself to get the former church, Davenport took it. His space at PS1’s Close House will be used as his studio.
The new Indigenous Peoples Art Gallery and Café, located in a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will host a variety of programming.
Among the many ideas Davenport has for the gallery and café, he plans to host poetry readings, invite educators to hold historical presentations on tribes that lived in Iowa and show screenings of films and TV shows centered on Indigenous stories. Davenport hopes that the gallery and café will foster conversation among guests about the art they just witnessed or encourage them to support the artist.
Originally, the word “café” in the name wasn’t a literal reference to a café, but rather Davenport’s idea of presenting various art the way a café presents guests a menu of food and drink options. But if people want a cup of joe, Davenport’s ready and willing to make that happen.
If he does, or embarks on any other types of programming, Davenport said he wants to keep the art gallery and café “100% Indigenous.”
The two-level space lends itself to Davenport’s vision, including a small kitchen on its lower level where Davenport could host programming related to food or simply serve patrons a hot cup of coffee.
Upstairs, an elevated platform facing what once was a congregation lends itself to a natural stage for presenters or intimate poetry readings, and the large, empty space that once sat rows of pews will be adapted to display art.
Davenport wants his gallery to always be changing so that it’s fresh to returning visitors.
Davenport likens the Indigenous Peoples Art Gallery to a garden, one that if nourished, can grow something beautiful for the Iowa City community.
Artists at the gallery will be paid for their work and will be invited to set up donation jars, links to social media and so on so that those unable to buy their work can support them in other ways.
Davenport said he wants to create a “model” for artists, especially as someone who has faced his own challenges on getting properly compensated for their work.
“It sucks as an artist or an educator. … Sometimes we don’t get our value for our knowledge in our stories and history and art,” he said.
Davenport also intends to dedicate space in the gallery toward information about the artist whose work is on display or who is performing so that visitors, upon entrance, can immediately have the context they need to better understand the art they will see.
By possibly next spring, the UI alumnus hopes to have the space as he envisions complete in time for an artist he hopes to host at the gallery.
For now, he’ll be busy getting the space ready, getting done what he can as he seeks financial support and donations from the community, and later, grants.
“That’s where the community support comes in,” he said. “I hope that this is something that we all want here because I’m going to bring contemporary art. I’m gonna bring the old history. I’m going to bring education.
“But I’m also going to bring new technologies and experiment with everything that I’ve been taught as a student, trying to employ all of that into bringing great storytelling, art, history and food.”
Davenport said he hopes to foster partnerships including with the UI Stanley Museum of Art or the university, both for the benefit of the creatives that enter his gallery and for the university, which he hopes would see this space as something that would fill the educational gaps related to Indigenous art and history for students.
The space is something that can benefit any local Indigenous folks wanting to learn more about their culture, Davenport said.
“I don’t know what this is going to bring,” he said. “But I know that I’m true to my vision. I know that. I know that artists are interested to come here. I think that it’ll just be a beautiful thing for everybody.”