Spotlight Iowa City: A gallery of careers


Brenna Norman/The Daily Iowan
Ben Chait stands behind the front counter of his gallery, Chait Galleries Downtown, on Monday. Chait has owned the gallery, which sells and displays his and other artists’ work, for six years.
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Ben Chait has never settled down in one career. He always wants to do something else.

Since arriving in Iowa City more than 30 years ago, the soft-spoken architect turned visual artist and entrepreneur doesn’t lament that he decided to put down the pencil and pick up a camera.

“It’s an incarnation of possibility,” said Chait, 62, about quitting work as a UI Hospital and Clinics architect three decades ago and deciding to pursue more commercial and artistic endeavors. Or, how he simply put it, “Getting out of the box.”

Chait, a native of South Florida, has always had an eye for art. Graduating with a degree in architecture and urban design from Washington University in St. Louis, it took six years for him to move away from the trade.

In 1974, Chait moved to Iowa City to take a job at the UIHC in architecture. The following year, he moved into a private practice but was soon disenchanted, quitting in 1980.

The tall Chait began a new career path — one that combined freedom and entrepreneurship.

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He began to take portraits and paint buildings with eccentric colors, and he founded Iowa City’s only independent movie store.

But the businessman is really known for his pristine landscape photography. He’s dabbled in portrait photography, sculpting, and painting.

“He would never confine himself to one thing,” said wife Terri Chait, who co-owns Chait Galleries Downtown, 218 E. Washington St. “He has always called the shots.”

The gallery, a local mainstay for the arts community that sells pieces from ranging in price from $5 to $25,000, displays colorful works against stark white walls in a cavernous space, featuring Chait’s collection and that of artists from around the world.

Though Chait admits the gallery can be intimidating to some who feel the need to purchase, he said the space is not as demanding as it is fulfilling for him and his customers.

“This is just a small retail gallery. We’re not a fancy museum galley,” he said, noting that the gallery serves more to foment the interest of the arts in the community. This, he says, makes the gallery a more intimate space than some might assume.

Iowa City native and former UI Museum of Art exhibition designer Dave Dennis, 66, has worked with Chait since the gallery opened seven years ago.

Dennis believes Chait’s innovation has helped him become a successful artist.

“They have to have a vision, and that’s no different from someone trying to write a book,” Dennis said.

Chait’s vision has defined the quality of world-class art in such an unorthodox city.

“Iowa City is a pretty melting-pot community, and connections from around the world are pretty amazing,” he said.

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