When Betsy Hart graduated from Drake in May 2016, she was eager to begin a career in the art world. But like many blossoming artists, she found that her accommodations were cramping her style.
“I had been struggling to maintain a studio practice because I had been working out of my one-bedroom apartment,” said Hart, a painter who enjoys working with latex house paint. “The stuff I was doing was large-scale and messy, so it’s not something I can do at the kitchen table. I had the financial resources and stability of an everyday job to actually work on a studio practice; all I was missing was the space to do it in.”
A new program sponsored by Drake University has helped give Hart a running start on her career. Through a competitive application process, Drake’s Department of Art and Design selected Hart to receive one year of rent-free studio space at Mainframe Studios, a nonprofit studio space that opened in downtown Des Moines this fall.
“It’s been amazing,” Hart said. “I have been creating what I want to create, and I have been able to meet and connect with other artists. I’m constantly thinking about my art now.”
Having a Drake studio in Mainframe was President Marty Martin’s idea—it’s funded by the Office of the President and part of a broader University commitment to enhancing quality of life and economic development in central Iowa through arts and culture. Professors in the Department of Art and Design discussed a number of options for using the space, and ultimately decided to give it to a recent alum to use rent-free for a year.
“It’s a form of support that we can offer our alumni,” said Benjamin Gardner, department chair and associate professor of art and design. “Studio space is affordable for someone with a full-time salary, but it’s difficult to afford for someone who is right out of college in addition to renting somewhere to live.”
Hart now spends about ten hours per week in her studio at Mainframe, though she says her goal is twenty. The studio benefits Hart and those who will come after her in a number of ways, including indirect financial support and networking—working in a building full of other artists helps creative people to connect with each other.
“Being able to say I have a studio at Mainframe opens up conversations with more established artists,” Hart said. “I feel like they see me in a different way since I have a studio.”
Hart is also able to show off her work to the greater Des Moines art community during Mainframe’s open studio nights when the community is invited to visit the studios and connect with the artists. Moving forward, she plans to sell her art from the studio, create a website and business cards, and eventually show her work in regional and national galleries.
Drake’s initiative closely aligns with regional priorities for strengthening central Iowa’s economy, arts scene and overall quality of life, said Sally Dix, executive director of Bravo Greater Des Moines, a nonprofit organization that provides funding and support for arts and culture organizations in the region.
“Mainframe Studios addresses an important need for the arts and culture ecosystem in Greater Des Moines, and this type of supportive model [from Drake] directly aligns with our region’s cultural priorities,” Dix said. “Establishing creative space for local artists to thrive is essential for the creative economy to prosper.”
When Mainframe’s founder, Justin Mandelbaum, surveyed 424 local artists in 2014, he found that 325 were working out of their homes or had no studio space at all. More than 80 artists are now settling into the 160,000 square foot building, and once the project is fully complete, as many as 180 will further their art careers in studios that are priced to allow artists to remain there long-term.
“Drake’s fellowship program provides a dynamic transition opportunity for the University’s studio artists,” said Mainframe Studios Director Siobhan Spain. “[For Drake] to take away the entire cost barrier allows Betsy to bypass the post-college adjustment period and focus on her studio practice right away. What's more, she is surrounded by a diverse mix of professional artists who have experience making a living off their artistic talent.”
Drake’s current art students benefit from having an alum in the studio as well, as Hart will invite students from various art classes to visit her in the studio. Gardner said having a Drake alum in the community creates a public access point for Hart and Drake.
Hart is appreciative of the opportunity Drake has given her to further her art career.
“The fact that Drake is doing this for their alumni, it shows that they care about their art and design program, and they care about the Des Moines art community,” Hart said. “It makes me proud to have gone to Drake.”