IOWA CITY, Iowa — Getting retail space for a small-business owner in Iowa City’s bustling downtown is tough. Getting an arts studio or a spot dedicated to showcasing art may be even tougher.

Enter RADInc. in the heart of downtown Iowa City. Its name is an acronym for Retail Art Design Incubator. In the space that long held The Den and its mix of college apparel, sundries and head shop paraphernalia now sits a business unlike anything else in downtown.

RADInc., in its role of a retail incubator, sells items made by local artisans and businesses who cannot afford a storefront in downtown Iowa City or make enough money with traditional consignment deals, said Simeon Talley, one of the businesses founders.

So far, RADInc. has sold items from over 30 different business owners.

As an art incubator, the second floor of the space is dedicated to supplying local artists a shared studio space for a relatively low price. It also has plenty of space for art exhibitions for local artists and traveling exhibitions.

The space also has room for events behind the retail space. Since opening March 23, the space has hosted 18 different special events, including film screenings, meetings, workshops, play rehearsals, dance parties, concerts and even the launch of a local nonprofit.

“What RADInc. means to us is to establish a less-expensive entry point for creative entrepreneurs and local artists of all types into the downtown Iowa City market,” Talley said of the idea that guided he and RADInc. co-founder John Engelbrecht.

RADInc. would not be able to exist without the space being available at a deep discount. The building that currently holds RADInc., also occupied by a leasing office for the new southeast Iowa City housing project The Quarters and the new bubble tea shop Encore Life, is currently owned by Old Capitol View LLC and managed by Kevin Monson of Neumann Monson Architects. Talley said RADInc. was able to obtain a discounted lease agreement because of the possibility that the building could be demolished or redeveloped after the lease expires.

That means the lease, and the existence of RADInc., is likely to be anywhere between 12 and 15 months.

Monson said that there were no “firm plans in place right now” with the building, but that “letting some startups test their wings seemed appealing.”

“We didn’t envision exactly who would take the spaces, but we did envision a plan that could work very well for them and let them serve as an incubator of businesses and ideas,” Monson told the Iowa City Press-Citizen (http://icp-c.com/2rus97z ).

Engelbrecht said that “trying to find these cracks in the real estate landscape is important. I think Iowa City is a town that wants art to be accessible, I think it wants to make a home for artists. I think that’s what the future is for art in Iowa City: continuing to find these cracks. Every time I look, real estate prices are going up and up.”

The space RADInc. occupies is relatively large: 3,000 square feet on the first level and 1,100 square feet on the second floor.

The second floor was once a head shop. Now with the boards ripped off of the seven large windows that look out onto Washington Street, the space and its abundance of natural light have been converted into a shared studio space for up to eight artists. These stations and the space as a whole are open nearly 24/7 to the artists and cost $100 a month.

“It wouldn’t be possible for artists to rent a space for that much in a normal real estate situation,” Englebrecht said.

As the director of the Iowa City artists-run nonprofit organization Public Space One, which provides space, education and support for local artists, Englebrecht knows firsthand the value of having such a space in the heart of downtown Iowa City.

“Artists need space to work, and space to show work,” he said. “That’s something downtown Iowa City doesn’t have much of and an issue they haven’t solved yet.”

It’s on the second floor where painters, designers and even a University of Iowa professor with 3-D printers can set up shop and get to creating art. There’s even white cube gallery space where artists can show work. On Saturday nights, the space can be reserved for artists to host parties or show their art to the public.

The first floor is where items from local fashion designers like jackets, shirts and bow ties are on sale. There’s also enough room to screen a movie at the opposite side of the entrance and host an elaborate graffiti-laden art display in between the two ends.

Traveling arts project Wastedland 2 features a screening of a film about graffiti artists by the same name. Before screening the movie, filmmaker Andrew H. Shirley helped install the art installation aimed at turning RADInc. into a graffiti wonderland. The immersive film installation was set to show Shirley’s film that Saturday night.

“It’s important that there are people like Simeon and John who still care about community and culture on a grassroots level. They’re engaging the public and creating dialogues by supporting artists like this,” Shirley said, as he helped install everything from a makeshift fort to a massive wooden sculpture that looked like an alien with a dozen eyes shaped into a 10-foot-tall vase.

Shirley has been touring with the film and these pieces of work by multiple artists to towns like Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Portland, Oregon.

“They’re engaging the public, creating dialogues, by supporting art. The biggest thing we have in this country right now is division, political division and a polarization of ideas,” Shirley said. “What this does is make a neutral ground for people to talk and make art, to provoke critical thinking.”

The idea for a small-business and art incubator had been percolating for a while, Talley said. He envisioned opening a similar concept about a year ago, but the space fell through at the last minute. Nate Kaeding, then the retail development director for the Iowa City Downtown District, informed Talley about the space on Washington Street being available for a deeply discounted rent. Talley and Englebrecht jumped at the opportunity.

To transform the space from The Den to a haven for artists before opening in March. Talley said he, Engelbrecht and a score of volunteers put in the “sweat equity” themselves as they spent weekends painting, removing carpet and moving furniture.

Now, the space is still constantly evolving and changing.

“This space as a whole is still a work in progress. It’s an experiment. It’s not a cookie-cutter thing,” Englebrecth said.

Talley said the space will host more pop-up shops for local small businesses like it did for Iowa City-based home goods maker Modela and Cedar Rapids-based furniture store Mad Modern. Talley said they also plan to start a newsletter curated to those starting a new business, and this month will host a conversation series that brings business owners to the store to discuss how they started their brick-and-mortar stores.

Most of all, the two RADInc. leaders are trying to make sure to share the value of the space with as many people as possible in the time that they have.

Talley said he hopes the space serves those who miss Chait Galleries, the downtown Iowa City art gallery that displayed art from local and national artists for decades before it closed in March.

“We’re not Chait, we’re a very raw space,” Talley said. “But when they closed, it left a massive hole for visual art in downtown Iowa City. We want to fill that hole as much as we can.”

He also wants to help local small-business owners who need a venue to sell their wares.

“Younger brands or younger artist who don’t have the financial resources to take the risk of spending $6,000 or $7,000 a month, there’s this gap for them in between farmers market and pop ups and traditional retail space,” Talley said. “RADInc. wants to bridge that gap a bit.”

For Englebrecht, he hopes RADInc. serves as a model for future business and artistic endeavors. Noting past attempts to establish a downtown arts center and the current push by the nonprofit organization ArtiFactory to establish one in downtown Iowa City or the Riverfront Crossings district, Englebrecht hopes RADInc. will again spark a discussion about funding or building an arts center in Iowa City.

“This could be a model for future things that exist in the real estate environment. Maybe we could do something like this where we’re paying actual rent,” Englebrecht said. “Or maybe we’ll find an open-minded landlord who says, ‘I value promoting art over making my $3,000 a month.'”


Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, http://www.press-citizen.com/

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Iowa City Press-Citizen.