New gallery brightens IC


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Similar to many, the 1980s proved to be a trying period in Steven Vail’s life. But in line with a national farm crisis that placed particular challenges on a number of Midwestern states, Vail tried to buck the trend, opting to open a collection of art in a renovated Des Moines warehouse.

But like several other artists of the time period, he said, he was showing works ahead of the time for Iowa’s capital.

More than 30 years and a new title later, Vail is back at it again, this time with a new place for artistic appreciation: downtown Iowa City.

During a Thursday evening grand opening with the Art et Architecture exhibition, Vail welcomed area art aficionados, business associates, and the curious passersby in the new Steven Vail Fine Arts — Project Room.

While visitors sipped wine by the glass and stared at the more than dozen pieces — often priced between $400 and $50,000 — many in attendance said the new art gallery’s impeding impact on the local area will go beyond a one-day event.

Vail, who opened a similar gallery in Des Moines’ East Village in 2009, said the new, roughly 800-square feet space will stand out among the 14 other downtown art and art gallery venues.

“It’ll be a complete experience,” he said pending what he anticipates as a strong relationship with next-door neighbor FilmScene — set to open its new downtown art house cinema in the coming weeks.

The two tenants make up just half of the newly renovated Packing & Provision Co. Building, 118 E. College St., which over the last several months has seen nearly more than $1.5 million investments by local developer Marc Moen.

Despite a near last-minute installation of a makeshift wall in the gallery, Vail said the construction work has been well worth it, adding it has been akin to the Des Moines space in many ways.

“We liked the vibe of Iowa City; it’s a very culturally friendly city,” he said. “It’s not the suburbs … it’s more of a progressive atmosphere. I’m not sure we could pull this off in a Coralville strip mall.”

Vail said the decision to open the downtown location came from a desire to bring further convenience to clients in Chicago and throughout eastern Iowa.

Breianna Cochran, the Project Room director, has followed the growth of the Vail brand over the course of the last several years. She said working in the art gallery has afforded her a “best of both worlds” experience, utilizing both a print art and art history background.

“[The best part of working here ] is that I get to look at art all day, whether it be on the wall or research,” she said.

For Moen, reflection thoughts came through strong Thursday evening, recalling the first point of contact with Vail. Several months ago, Moen reached out to him following a visit to Des Moines to see if it would be possible to open an art gallery in the historic structure.

So in the eyes of Moen, how is Vail differentiating the local gallery scene?

“He’s doing mostly works on paper … he’s bringing a new element which is that national and international pieces,” he said.

For Iowa art purveyor Michelle Blackler, who has long attended the Des Moines exhibitions, Vail’s new “intimate” space adds a mix of traditional and modern, one that she sees bringing a further business and demographic mix to the downtown community.

Seeing the benefits that the gallery has brought to the once-desolate, now vibrant East Village, she said his spaces provide a great bridge between youth and the baby-boomer generation.

“I think [he] curates works that are very relevant and to help people make that transition into an art,” she said. “[He] always puts his stamps on his galleries.”

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