Q&A: When there’s no TV, get creative

Siobhan Spain is an artist.

And an artist’s best friend.

Spain is the Director of Mainframe Studios in downtown Des Moines. It’s a new nonprofit organization located in a four-story building that provides permanent, affordable workspace for artists of all disciplines. The first phase features over 60 artists and a wait list has started for phase two.

Clay & Milk asked Spain how she found herself directing Mainframe Studios and about the Iowa art community:

What’s your first art memory?

SS: My mother was a very brave art teacher and farmer with seven children, so creative resourcefulness was always a priority. I say brave because after becoming fed up hearing her kids fight over the television she threw it out—literally—it landed in the front yard.

After that she had seven kids in the middle of nowhere who needed something else to do.

The creativity that came out of our household during those four boob-tube-less years was impressive, to say the least. However, it is one thing to be creative and another to be an artist. The first time I truly felt like an artist in my own right was in high school. That is when I experienced creating independent work that came from my own interests, ideas and skills.

Where are you from and how did you get to your current role?

SS: I grew up with six siblings on our farm south of Des Moines and in Nebraska. With a family full of creative, resourceful, talent I didn’t give much thought about pursuing an art major at the University of Iowa. One day in class I was drawing my shoes at the request of a teacher’s aid when I realized I had a different destiny. I had no peers at that time in pursuing a business major for the sake of art.

Artists need agents. The artists I knew needed someone to be their ally in the business world, to understand and represent their interests. The art classes I kept in my schedule were a tether to the familiar and to my motivation. In the end, the degree was the right choice even when most people questioned what did art have to do with business. I then set out to explore just that.

Long story short, I moved to Seattle, Santa Fe and Los Angeles working for artists, for nonprofits, for media companies, for galleries, for museums and for foundations. I have had some amazing experiences in my professional adventures, all which have made a pathway to my current job as director of Mainframe Studios.

When I returned to Des Moines the community I was first drawn to was the tech industry. There was a lot of energy coming from it and it was inviting. I saw similarities between the arts and tech communities. When I attended panel discussions and social events the environment of dedication, innovation, inclusion and thirst of knowledge was a familiar one. At one of these events I met Justin Mandelbaum. We kept in touch during the development of his idea for Mainframe Studios. Lucky for me, it led to a pretty awesome job that employs my unconventional background. This includes the time I created the intranet for the Los Angeles Times, or installed door hardware in a New Mexico monastery that was designed and hand-forged by MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Tom Joyce .


Mainframe Studios is located in downtown Des Moines.

How is Mainframe Studios? How many artists, disciplines?

SS: Three of our five floors have been renovated and the former CenturyLink building now features 65 artist studios, five arts-related nonprofit offices, a commercial kitchen, event rental space and common areas. Over 80 artists are settling into their new studios, of which 56% are women and 20% are from out-of-town. Twenty-four artist disciplines are represented: glass blowers, clothing designers, painters, sculptors, game developers, woodworkers, printers, stone workers, storyboard artists and more. With two more floors to renovate, Mainframe Studios will feature 180 artist studios once fully complete. It is becoming a national model as one of the largest affordable workspaces for artists in the country.

Feedback about the project so far has been incredibly positive. We are exceeding expectations and I don’t plan for this to stop.

What is your favorite aspect of Mainframe Studios?

SS: There are too many to count. However, I do love that we are changing the prevailing story of artists being priced out whenever their neighborhoods and cities are prospering. They play a role in that development, and instead of pushing them into the next dilapidated warehouse district we’re giving them a proper place to work that recognizes their community impact in cultivating innovation, strong economies, collaboration and social well being. This cannot happen with a traditional for-profit business structure. Artist studio buildings will always convert to another use unless its future is safeguarded against this fact. Mainframe Studios is a nonprofit that owns its building, and once our fundraising goal is met, will be self-sustaining. This ensures that artists can work here for generations to come. This is a game changer.

Another great aspect is that it is affordable. Creators need affordability. Affordable rent for a space outside the home provides the freedom to explore new ideas and collaborations, develop a new body of work, respond to intuition, build relationships and follow their dreams… cheeky but true. We will be a better community as a whole as a result.

One more would be that it’s exciting to show how much talent we have in Des Moines. It surprises people and that’s pretty great to witness.

In your experience, has the art community been a diverse community?

Most definitely so (example: United States Artists Fellows ). Self-expression, independent thinking and cultural celebration has no boundaries. It is human nature. Then, artists are creative thinkers. By default, they tend to be open-minded, risk takers and inclusive. They are not afraid to traverse barriers, connect with the unexpected and do things that most people don’t understand.

How do you define diverse?

SS: First, I don’t put boundaries on what it means to be an artist or creative professional. It’s difficult for me to define, frankly, because I apply it in so many areas of my work. Diversity in almost every context is an asset. I would think there wouldn’t be a need for the word in the future.

What have you seen that helps encourage diversity in the arts?

  1. Showing young people and at-risk youth the possibilities in pursuing a creative career
  2. Dismantling the myth that artists don’t make money

The two are not mutually exclusive.

I’ve been following this program called Cool Jobs in Philadelphia which “introduces 600 at-risk seventh graders to highly successful, exciting people doing real jobs in the creative economy that they may not know existed.” I’d love to bring this concept to Des Moines with the artists of Mainframe and other organizations. Introducing creative career possibilities to middle school children and teaching them that artists have value is something we all should prioritize. My mom was discouraged from pursuing an art degree. I will always be a bit pissed at her parents for it. The idea that a creative career doesn’t count is something I want to help abolish.

The addition of art in the STEM program would be useful. Progress in science, technology, engineering and math require the ability to think creatively and analytically. Arts education is essential. I’d go so far as to say it’s critical to our ability to progress. It’s the future.

How diverse is the Des Moines art community? Is Iowa’s just as diverse or less?

SS: Des Moines and Iowa have equal work to do on this front. And, certain creative industries are more diverse than others. While the gender divide is narrowing, it’s still there. Racially, we seem to have a vast cavern to traverse. Regarding individuals with disabilities, Community Support Advocates having success bridging the gap between this community and the arts. The impact is compelling, as expected.

Iowa’s population will continue to diversify – as it should. Art can be a terrific tool in bringing people together and cultivating an environment of trust, collaboration and opportunity.