Public Space One celebrates 20th anniversary, looks to upcoming installation “Surreal House”

After two decades as a pillar in the local arts community, PS1 plans to continue to champion its mission of serving the public as an interdisciplinary center for all things creative and contributing to the “social fabric” of Iowa City.


Matt Sindt

The Public Space One sign is seen at a flea market at Public Space One Close House Oct. 16, 2022.

Parker Jones, Arts Editor

The roots of Public Space One were firmly planted in a donated space above the Deadwood Tavern in 2002 by a group of University of Iowa students who needed a place to rehearse their original play. As one of Iowa City’s artistic pillars, PS1 has now stood for two entire decades.

PS1 is an artist-led contemporary center for the arts. Outgrowing its locations again and again over its history, the multidisciplinary organization now functions out of two historic houses in downtown Iowa City.

On the evening of Dec. 1, PS1 hosted its 20th birthday party and annual member assembly at its Close House location on South Gilbert Street. It provided a chance for members to discuss PS1’s history, and a sneak peek at its future with its next exhibition, titled “Surreal House.”

PS1 Executive Director John Engelbrecht became involved with PS1 in 2009. He attended a music show for his friend’s band and said PS1 drew him in as “such a mysterious, underground place.” Engelbrecht became executive director at the beginning of 2022.

“I went and I just thought, this place is mysterious and weird,” Engelbrecht said. “And I was really excited to be part of it.”

Soon after, he also participated in an art show at the organization, which was then located in the Jefferson Building on East Washington Street. Around that time, PS1 transitioned from being a primarily underground organization to presenting work from artists around the country.

Now, PS1 hosts a multitude of workshops, public art projects, and residencies. It established the  Iowa City Press Co-op, Iowa’s only community-access printmaking studio, and the Center for Afrofuturist Studies, a residency and visiting artist program for artists of color. Engelbrecht said a big challenge with such expansion is finding more people to support their mission, but that said mission continues with the same values PS1 had at its founding.

“The original mission of this group of students who started Public Space One, to be this kind of like low-barrier, accessible place where anyone can come and put something on and, you know, as much as we’ve changed in those 20 years, I think that’s still a value that we hold onto,” Engelbrecht said.

With two decades of artist interaction and community building behind it, PS1 has left an undisputable impact on Iowa City and its artistic culture. Travis Kraus is on the board of directors for PS1 and got involved with the organization in 2018 as an artist that submitted to a call for proposals. Kraus was initially surprised at the level of direct involvement artists have with PS1’s activities.

“After having such a positive experience with my own show, I decided that this was an organization where I’d like to spend a lot of my volunteer energy,” Kraus said. “I was kind of surprised and impressed and excited about the way that Public Space One and the community of artists and leaders in the organization really think differently… It was not just business as usual.”

Kraus also emphasized the same directional growth that Engelbrecht summarized. He noted that one of PS1’s taglines revolve around possibility — imagining what is possible in our world, and how artists want the future to take shape.

PS1 is true to its “public” nature, and Kraus believes that the future of PS1 can continue to involve and shape the Iowa City community even outside the realm of art.

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“It values its role within the community, and the values that are infused into the work that we do guide the way that we make decisions about how we contribute to the social fabric of Iowa City and the surrounding area,” Kraus said.

The next exhibition PS1 will host is an immersive installation titled “Surreal House.” Mainly created by local artist Kelly Moore alongside several collaborators, the exhibit will allow viewers to walk through a dreamlike space in three converted rooms on the first floor of PS1’s Close House.

PS1 Kalmia Strong Program Director and has been involved with the organization since 2011. She assumed her current position six years ago and was a volunteer for several years beforehand.

“I really liked that it was easy to get involved,” Strong said. “I was interested in like learning more about how art events are put on and organized, and so that was very easy to be a part of that at PS1.”

Strong said she would describe “Surreal House” as a “space transformed with a little bit of wonder,” inspired by the surrealist art movement. Each room will have a different theme, with viewers able to examine each and every detail of the space for “little surprises.”

One room is called the “Third Eye Lounge,” filled with items and objects that look like eyes or eyeballs. There will be some giant pieces, but also several details that require some time to look at and take in. Additionally, other PS1 events will happen while the exhibit is installed, unlike other art installations that take over an entire space.

“This is like an environment where other things can happen within it, like if you’re having a music show, for example, doing it within an artist-designed, unique environment really changes the atmosphere,” Strong said.

“Surreal House” will be up for six weeks beginning the week of Dec. 4. Strong said that she is excited for the upcoming exhibit and for PS1 to pass such a milestone — she described Surreal House as a manifestation of the collaborative effort PS1 champions.

“In some ways, anniversaries are a little bit arbitrary, but it is great to be able to celebrate and recognize there have been thousands and thousands of people who have participated,” Strong said. “Not just coming to shows, but organizing, helping, painting walls, taking out trash — Just the idea of thinking about all those people and celebrating them and what we’ve all done together is wonderful.”