By Kevin Hardy
What once was a windowless data center filled with towering computers has been transformed into bright and airy studios for photographers, graphic designers, painters and other artists.
Dozens of artists are bringing life to Mainframe Studios, which fills the former Qwest Communications office at 900 Keosauqua Way. The nonprofit organization has just completed the first phase of a $12 million project to revamp the space into affordable art studios. There are 64 studios now open.
Once fully renovated, the 160,000-square-foot facility will include 180 artist studios, which organizers say will make it the nation’s largest affordable studio project of its kind.
Mainframe Studios will open its doors to the community from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday for the first of its regular open studio events.
The project is the brainchild of developer Justin Mandelbaum, who is also working on a marquee skyscraper project downtown through his family’s development firm, Mandelbaum Properties.
Mandelbaum created Mainframe to provide artists with permanent, affordable studios. He says artists continue to get squeezed out as development booms in and around downtown Des Moines.
Mainframe offers studios as small as 160 square feet and some more than 3,500 square feet. Rents start at $7 per square foot per year. That means a 500-square-foot space would run about $292 per month, plus utilities.
Yet Mandelbaum said the building can do more than serve artists. He said it should provide an economic boon to the area.
“It starts to attract the creative class to Des Moines and then by extension young professionals, new businesses, helps retain talent and makes life more interesting for you and me,” he said. “Des Moines has a lot of artists, it’s just some people don’t know about it.”
Demand is already outstripping supply for studio space: Mainframe Studios Director Siobhan Spain said she has a growing waiting list for future phases of studio build outs on the building’s second and third floors.
She said the space is already creating a cluster of collaboration among tenants who work across 24 disciplines.
“What I see this as is an opportunity to take artists seriously for the first time,” she said, “really give them a space that’s made for them.”
Some of the studios serve part-time artists with separate, full-time careers. Others are filled by some of the city’s best-known artists who make their living off photography, painting and jewelry.
Mainframe is currently home to a game designer, an animator who has worked on big productions like “The Secret Life of Pets” and a string art studio that teaches local classes.
Ben Schuh, known for his murals at Exile Brewing Co., the Iowa Taproom and Beaverdale’s Uptempo Music, has a studio. And John Bosley, a former lead designer at Raygun, has located his Bozz Prints business at Mainframe.
Light the Earth, which specializes in natural stone art, has moved from Valley Junction to Mainframe’s first floor. That level includes offices, a community events space, a gallery and a studio for Red Door Press, a letter press studio that sells to high-end retailers like West Elm.
Judy Goodwin, a retired Grand View University English professor, shares a fourth-floor studio with two other ceramicists. She previously sculpted in her basement and at Dahlquist Art Studio downtown.
She loves the new space at Mainframe.
“It is a dream come true,” she said. “We’re just happy as can be.”
The bright studio she shares includes a giant blue kiln and three distinct areas for the three artists.
“Look at that light,” she said, pointing to the three huge panel windows that flood the space with sunlight. “In fact, if it’s gray at my house, I just come down here to get the sunshine.”
Since her July move in, she’s enjoyed meeting other artists in the building. They’ve shared lunches and laid out cookies for neighbors in the building, she said.
“That is what’s fun: to see what they’re doing, to hear what they’re doing,” she said. “The fellowship is very good.”
Maindelbaum said he has raised about half of the $12 million needed to fund the renovations. He says upfront fundraising, paired with ongoing rent payments and an endowment, should ensure that the space remains affordable for artists for years to come.
“In other words, it’s financially sustainable in a major way,” he said. “This is a building that will stand the test of time.
Glass blower Jesse Bogenrief occupies the building’s largest studio. He operated from a stuido in Spencer for about 13 years before coming to Des Moines.
“I basically outgrew my market,” he said.
He sells lighting, bowls, vases, ornaments and other items at the Des Moines Farmer’s Market and 25 area shops. His 3,700-square-foot space includes retail display and a large work area. There’s even a set of bleachers to accommodate visiting groups.
Bogenrief said he loves sharing the space with other artists. He’s already in talks about collaborating with artists in other mediums. During the work days, other tenants will make their way to his basement studio to watch him blow glass for a break from their own work.
“They need to be inspired or they just need to get away from the toxicity of their environment for that moment,” he said. “And they’ll come in here and just reset.”
He believes Mainframe will become a marquee spot downtown, serving as a go-to spot for shopping locally, for learning about the arts or for just finding entertainment.
“I hope it will be the standout beacon for the area,” he said.
Photos: The new Mainframe Studios offers an artists’ paradise