Photo of Tom Stancliffe

Retiring professor Tom Stancliffe reflects on 10 years of the Public Art Incubator at UNI


Inside the Kamerick Art Building on the University of Northern Iowa campus is an innovative program that’s completely unique to UNI: the Public Art Incubator.

Established in 2010 by sculpture professor Tom Stancliffe, the program was designed to give students in the Department of Art a more hands-on learning experience, and an inside look at exactly what goes into establishing a successful career as an artist.

Stancliffe, who is retiring from a 30-year-long teaching career at UNI this summer, looks back on the program as one of his proudest accomplishments from his time teaching.

Since it was established, the PAI (Public Art Incubator) has employed just over 40 different students, who have helped create more than 45 different pieces of artwork for professional artists, cities, universities and public institutions around the midwest.

The most recent project was a 22 foot high 9,000 pound stainless steel sculpture, which was installed at the new College of Pharmacy building on the University of Iowa campus.

Through the program, students are employed at the PAI, where they work with professional artists and public entities to fabricate different public art installments. Not only do the students learn the technical skills of the trade, but they learn the in’s and out’s of what goes into being a professional working in public art: how to earn commissions, how to work under a deadline and a budget, how to create a piece of art that is not only pleasing to view, but one that’s safe, structurally sound, and speaks to the story it’s meant to tell.

The impact the program has had on students speaks for itself, Stancliffe says.

“It’s been transformative in so many ways. There are students who start out a little timid, and unsure of themselves and their abilities; they’re out of their comfort zone and doing things they’ve never done before,” he said. “By the end, they’ve grown in ways I could have never imagined, and come so far not only artistically and professionally, but personally.”

By the end of their time in the program and their time at UNI, many of the students have gone on to successful careers as professional artists, particularly in the field of public art.

Abby Hedley, a UNI Art alumna who graduated last year, was one of the students who took part in the PAI. Now, she works as a professional artist, who recently earned a residency at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, and is now leading a project — in partnership with Stancliffe — to restore and conserve the public art that exists on the UNI campus.

Other UNI Art  graduates – some of whom worked in the PAI as students – have gone on to successful careers as artists, and will be returning to UNI to use the PAI for their own commissions.

Alumnae Gillian Christie, Sarah Deppe and Victoria Reed have each been commissioned to create installments in Waterloo and Cedar Falls over the next year. Each artist will partner with the PAI in one form or another – whether it’s having students fabricate the art, or helping with installation. 

“The program has really taken on a life of its own, and the impact has been so much greater than I had imagined,” Stancliffe said. “We’ve found a new opportunity for community engagement not only with our local community, but with communities and organizations all over. We’ve formed some amazing partnerships with professional artists, and we’ve been able to share the power of public art, while giving these students a totally unique experience.”

Now, Stancliffe is ready to pass the torch to his colleague Dan Perry, an instructor in the UNI Department of Art who has been involved in the program since the beginning.

Perry says he’s looking forward to continuing the work, and building the momentum the program has already established. 

“Tom has been a great mentor, colleague and friend, and I feel fortunate to have been involved in this with him over the years,” Perry said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing where this goes. The field of public art is constantly evolving, and so is the way that art is taught. This program is a great vehicle of opportunity for students to do things they never even thought would be an option for them.”

Perry says the students in the program will continue working on commissioned projects this summer, while practicing social distancing and other safety measures.

Meanwhile, Stancliffe will be busy working with alumna Abby Hedley on the campus art restoration effort, which will conserve and restore the public art around the UNI campus.

“Even though I’m retired, I can’t really stay still for too long, so I’ll still be around campus and working with art in one way or another,” Stancliffe said.