Performing arts boarding school to open in Iowa City

ICON Arts Academy will open its doors for the 2023-2024 school year, drawing students from across the country to Iowa City


Contributed photo from Beth Brown and Leslie Nolte.

Sydney Libert, News Reporter

A new performing arts boarding school is opening in downtown Iowa City that will allow young artists from across the country to expand their creative interests.

ICON Arts Academy, located at 123 N. Linn St., will be the first of its kind in Iowa and joins a limited number of similar programs in the Midwest, including Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and Perpich Arts High School in Minnesota.

Academy founders Leslie Nolte and Beth Brown worked together in 2012 to open Performing Arts Preschool, an early childhood program focused on the arts in Iowa City.

“That was like our baby that really kicked off the idea of the high school 10 years ago,” Nolte said.

Nolte, of The James Theater in downtown Iowa City. is also the founder and artistic director of Nolte Academy, a dance school located in Coralville.

Nolte will act as the executive and artistic director of ICON.

The academy will hold auditions in New York City; Iowa City; St. Louis; Austin, Texas; Winstom-Salem, North Carolina; Des Moines; Omaha, Nebraska; and Denver in January and Feburary. Virtual auditions will be available for students in the musical composition and design and production majors.

While the academy hopes to offer admission to all high school levels, the 2023-24 inaugural class will consist of 150 students from grades 9, 10, and 11.

Brown, an adjunct professor at the University of Iowa College of Education, will serve as ICON’s director of curriculum and instruction.

Brown has over 30 years of experience designing programming for kids.

ICON will offer students ages 14-19 over 20 hours of intensive arts education each week. Students will select a concentration to pursue from programs such as dance, theater arts, music, design, and production. Apartment-style co-op living with chaperones within three blocks of the school will be available to students who are unable to commute from their homes.

Brown said she intends to have interdisciplinary project-based instruction at the academy that will help students learn to communicate their understanding of topics, justify their decisions, collaborate with others, think critically, and reflect on their work.

The project-based learning environment will give students an authentic experience in relation to what it’s like to be a real artist through the guidance of experts, she said.

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Brown added that students studying different disciplines will work in smaller groups on projects about twice a week.

“We really want our students to have the opportunity to build skills that will help them when they go out into an arts field — if that’s what they desire to do — but ends up also building a lot of skills that are critical right now in any type of endeavor that you go out to do in the world after high school,” Brown said.

While ICON will primarily focus its studies on the arts, the academy is partnering with the Iowa City Community School District to give students online access to core academics during the school day. ICON students will be able to connect with learning coaches in the academy’s residence halls and campus for academic support.

Nolte said making sure students have a balanced academic schedule is important.

“We need [students] to get academics,” Nolte said. “But we believe you can get, if you choose all you need in high school within those core subjects in the fantastic Iowa City public schools, but spend more hours in a day on your craft and what you love and learning in a different manner.”

American roots musician David Zollo of David Zollo & The Body Electric is one of ICON’s audition panelists. Zollo said he is excited to see what the academy will bring to his hometown of Iowa City.

“I think arts education in America has tended to get short shrift,” Zollo said. “If a young person wants to be an artist, that’s something they want to try to pursue as a vocation, there’s not a lot to offer them … I think having an engaged, interdisciplinary education by and with professional artists and teachers that there’s a lot to be gained.”

Nolte said she hopes that by providing a space to pursue art, the academy can help other people throughout Iowa City and the world.

“I believe the arts better lives,” Nolte said. “Learning the arts, seeing the arts, participating in the arts — it has bettered my life, and I believe it should be a piece of everybody’s heart and soul.”