Yes!! I finally will get to see Brandi Carlile when she comes to town. Plus Hozier, Maggie Rogers and more. (We may miss Jason Isbell on night #2 because of a prior comittment.) Anyway, here’s the just announced lineup for the 3-night (the first 3-nighter) Hinterland festival in St. Charles, Iowa, about 35 minutes south of Des Moines. August can’t come soon enough!!
We finally went to one of the “First Friday” gatherings at Mainframe Studios, which is home to a maze of artists studios and has gotten some nice national press lately. (see story below from CityLab, an online publication reporting on people “creating the cities of the future.” ) On a cold January night, the place was busy with people wandering around three floors (LL, 1st and 4th) lined with small studios and exhibition/sales space for work by painters, jewelers, sculptors, ceramics, photo studios and graphic designers. We particularly enjoyed the well-attended glassblowing demonstration on the LL floor and the beautiful wood tables and metal sculpture next door at Dane Fabrication. We also picked up some fun Des Moines and Iowa-centric magnets and postcards at John Bosley’s Bozz Prints.
Des Moines Wants to Be the Affordable City for Artists
As Iowa’s capital city grows, its creative class has a pitch to artists in pricer cities: We’re creative, we’re affordable, and you can help us stay that way.
Ask someone to name U.S. cities with booming creative scenes and they’re likely to name the usual suspects: New York or L.A.; maybe Austin, Nashville, or Portland. One you probably won’t hear is Des Moines, Iowa—a state capital that has long been the realm of insurance workers and ag execs who flee the desolate city center after business hours.
But the city has been changing quickly over the past decade, posting the fastest population growth of any major metro in the Midwest in 2016, and 40 percent growth since 2007. In that time, the number of people living downtown has more than doubled. As the boom rolls on, the city’s creative boosters are on a quest to “create culture” by marketing their home as an option for creative entrepreneurs being priced out elsewhere—and to generally change the image you might have of the region. That might seem like a tall order, but the pitch can be distilled to a message many larger cities can’t credibly make anymore: We’re creative, we’re affordable, and you can help us stay that way.
“We want artists to be part of the conversation, and my impression is there are other places where decisions are being made around them, instead of with them,” said Sally Dix, executive director of Bravo Greater Des Moines, the region’s arts organization. “They will be part of deciding how we grow.”
A key part of that effort is making sure a growing city can remain affordable, even if prices increase in the future. The hope is to avoid the predicament seen in Austin, where a survey found more than half of the city’s artists are thinking about leaving, and nearly a quarter say they’re in a “precarious” position with their lease. Des Moines already hasn’t been immune to some of these pressures: Three artist buildings closed in Des Moines in recent years and are being converted to apartments and condos.
One of the most ambitious efforts to avoid that problem is Mainframe Studios, a project that is now the largest nonprofit arts space in the U.S. The idea: create permanent, affordable workspaces for artists by funding the project up front so that it’s financially self-sustaining, meaning low rents (as cheap as $114 a month) can be enough to cover operations and contribute to an endowment.
“Every day, we see headlines about artists being priced out, and it’s even happening here in little ol’ Des Moines,” said Siobhan Spain, director of Mainframe. “We want to learn from what’s going on in other cities, and we think we’ve created a model that approaches the problem in a proactive way.”
The building, a 160,000-square-foot former insurance call center in downtown Des Moines, has been transformed into modern studios with floor-to-ceiling windows, concrete floors, and 16-foot ceilings.
So far, it holds 85 artists repping a wide range of fields. When the build-out is done, that number will more than double—and there’s already a long waitlist. The demand is largely from artists in Iowa, but about 20 percent have come from out of state.
Mainframe tenant Adam Van Wyk, a Hollywood storyboard artist, had previously been operating out of one of the now-shuttered artist studios that is being converted into loft condominiums after operating for 20 years.
“The owner wanted to retire; I mean, I can’t blame him—but, yeah, that wasn’t part of the plan,” Van Wyk said. “Luckily, I could move into Mainframe, and in theory, shouldn’t ever have to move again. Even cooler is that it will be here for artists long after we’re all gone.”
Much of the city’s efforts are being centered and guided by a regional cultural assessment commissioned by Bravo as part of the city’s “Capital Crossroads” strategic five-year plan. The assessment’s recommendations included building networking hubs (like Mainframe) and reviewing city codes that could be slowing down creative businesses.
“One of the things we learned is that artists here weren’t feeling as connected to the resources, mentors, and community as they want to be, so we want to focus a lot of energy on that,” Dix said. “Mainframe is a good start, but we plan to do more.”
Indeed, artists say the biggest benefit to the new space is community—both getting to work alongside fellow artists and also engaging with people during events like First Fridays, when studios open the doors to the public. Another new effort is a study commissioned by Bravo and the Des Moines Arts Festival. Led by artist Chris Dahlquist, who also assisted Kansas City with arts initiatives, the aim is to study how Des Moines can provide even further professional development opportunities for artists.
Housing costs are a major factor in attracting and retaining artists. Currently, Des Moines’ cost of living is 10 percent lower than the national average, and it’s one of the top three markets for millennial home purchases. But as many other cities have seen, affordability often suffers with growth. The city is working with the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech to identify gaps with its workforce and housing projections in the coming years.
“We want to make sure factoring affordable housing happens before development does, and we’re figuring out now how to make that happen,” said Nikki Syverson, director of Capital Crossroads.
When it comes to actually funding cultural projects like Mainframe, Des Moines has had to get creative. Iowa ranks 47th for state funding for the arts, so public-private partnerships, individuals, and businesses have been key. With Mainframe, the county provided about $300,000 in grants, and Bravo gave over $170,000 to the project—but that’s a drop in the bucket, with a total $12 million needed. It’s mainly been possible due to individual donors. Other projects in the works include a new 65,000-square-foot skatepark on the river, funded by a wealthy local businessman; the downtown Des Moines Social Club, founded by East Coast transplant Zachary Mannheimer in 2007; and more than 90 public art installations around town, including the newest 30-foot tall Kerry James Marshall monument, largely funded by individuals.
Artists here generally agree that Des Moines has its pros and cons. For one thing, it’s certainly not New York in terms of exposure. One painter with a studio in Mainframe talked about the hurdles to accessing buyers and shows, for instance. But most of the spaces are filled with artists and creatives who find it easy to do their work from anywhere.
“The reality is we’re still exporting more twenty-somethings than importing,” said Mannheimer, who now works at an engineering firm overseeing creative placemaking initiatives in rural communities. “The next step we need to make is to change that.”
One Mainframe tenant, clothing designer Lori Lawler, moved back to Des Moines after 17 years in Los Angeles to open up a vintage clothing store and workshop space. She admits the adjustment to life in Iowa—namely, the harsh winters—hasn’t been easy. Overall, though, she says it’s been worth it.
On a frigid Sunday afternoon at the Des Moines Art Center, visitors could be seen crouching down to closely examine a series of ordinary objects — a paint-splattered wooden ladder, a battered wooden desk, some small screws inserted into a long bare wall, a dirty drop cloth bunched up by another wall, paint-splattered coveralls. They are all located in a museum exhibition space that looks like it’s being prepped for an art show. But this is the art show and the seemingly ordinary objects are the artwork. They’re not what you think.
What’s going on here? The objects are actually painstakingly crafted art installations, sculpture and drawings — often with inlaid semi-precious stones and hand-embroidery — by Susan Collis, a conceptual sculptor/painter based in London. The closer you look, the more you’re likely to see that what looks worthless actually might be worth a lot — or certainly worth a second look. And a very close look at that.
The stains on the coveralls, for example, upon closer inspection are not dirt or paint. They’re patches of hand-done embroidery. The dots, drips and splashes of paint on the scuffed ladder and chair are actually inlaid semi-precious stones – coral, mother of pearl, opals – cut to resemble paint dots, drips and splashes. The screws are made of precious metals. Some have a diamond in the center.
What looks like rags haphazardly thrown on the floor are actually made from Jacquard fabric — an intricately woven pattern more commonly used for fancy linens. What looks like a cheap felt packing blanket (to wrap around an artwork) is actually a needlepoint project. A cheap throw-away plaid plastic-fiber carrying bag – the kind refugees use to carry all their worldly possessions when they are fleeing – is actually a recreated hand-made bag and valuable sculpture, because of the meticulous hand labor employed to color in the plaid pattern and what looks like a real zipper (until you look more closely).
All this makes you think about the concepts behind the work. Fortunately, as a docent trainee, I got to learn firsthand from the artist during a presentation what some of those concepts are. They are supposed to inspire you to think about:
The hidden work that goes on behind the scenes in a gallery, as laborers and installers prep for the exhibit.
What is of worth or value vs. what is worthless?
What is lost during gentrification of a neighborhood?
To me the exhibit also brought to mind Trompe-l’œil, which means “deceive the eye” in French. Instead of working in traditional Trompe-l’oeil fashion to make something look 3-D and often fancier than it really is (ex: making a wood wall look resemble marble columns), Susan Collis is adding almost hidden value to an ordinary-looking object (ex: making a shabby step ladder more valuable by inlaying it with precious stones.). It’s sort of mind-bending. I recommend taking a look for yourself. A very close look!
Wish I had discovered the $3 day public transport pass earlier here. Then I wouldn’t have overdone it by walking miles and miles on Sunday. I bought a pass with cash on the St. Charles Streetcar and used it all day to wander around the city. When I got tired or when the walk to the next spot was too long, I hopped on a streetcar or bus. And I did my old trick of hopping aboard the streetcar when walking became an issue, riding all the way to the end of the line and back which is a great ride, past gorgeous stately homes and Tulane and Loyola Universities and Audubon Park and the gated streets across the street (Audubon Row).
I followed the Fodor’s walking tour in the Garden District, which took me past a number of beauties, some homes of famous folks, from the former confederate president Jefferson Davis to the actor John Goodman and the author Ann Rice. (Along Prytania and Coliseum Streets between Washington Avenue and First Street; First Street between Prytania and Camp Streets.) I also went past Lafayette Cemetery #1 which I meant to revisit (next trip) and Commanders Palace, where we ate during my first NOLA trip in the late 1980s. Lunch was a corned beef sandwich at the funky Stein’s Deli on Magazine Street, where I also did a little birthday shopping for my daughter at Grandma’s Buttons (jewelry made from old buttons) and Funky Monkey (vintage.) I really wanted to eat at Turkey and Wolf but it is closed on Tuesdays…
I got off the streetcar in the Warehouse District, had some hot chocolate (it’s still cold here but the sun finally came out around 3 p.m. What a difference!) while sitting in a mod comfortable chair in the coffee shop of the Contemporary Arts Center and browsed briefly in the gift shop of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (both look well worth a visit), which had some lovely work by, yes, southern artists. But the biggest shock was when I was strolling casually past the galleries nearby on Julia Street. First I spotted new work by Eric Fischl, one of my favorite big name artists. But in the next gallery I chanced upon a solo show of work by an artist I know — Elliott Green, who I went to high school with my brother and is his close friend/former NYC roomate circa the early 1980s. Crazy. And I loved his new work!
Yet another superb dinner. We were 4:4 this trip. Every dinner was not only delicious but distinctive from the other. Tonight we went to a cozy homey neighborhood place in Treme called Gabrielle’s, serving outstanding Cajun food — grey-colored she-crab bisque, quail gumbo (deep red-brown with slices of sausage), baked oysters topped with bread crumbs, artichoke bits, cheese. We shared an entree that was a thin grilled blackened white fish draped over a thick moist crab cake. And dessert was traditional lemon chess pie. Enjoyed every bite. (Although our Uber driver chastised us for not trying char-grilled oysters at Drago’s, a famous suburban place that opened a second location in: Our Hotel…)
We drove right past the Grant Wood Studio in downtown Cedar Rapids. Who knew it was tucked above a carriage house behind a former funeral home? But very glad we found it because it was really interesting. We watched a short film about Woods’ life in and around Cedar Rapids and then walked up an outdoor staircase to a small second-floor loft above the carriage house where Grant lived with his mother (and sometimes his sister) and painted some of his most famous paintings, reproductions of which were propped up on an easel in the middle of the main room, a white-walled room with heavy wood beams and lots of natural light flooding in from big windows and a cupola.
We walked a few blocks to the Cedar Rapids Art Museum where we saw some of the paintings Wood painted in the loft – which was pretty cool. We also sawother interesting work including paintings by Wood’s friend/lesser-known artist Marvin Cone and an interesting exhibit of World War I themed paintings done by a 21st century painter.
Cedar Rapids’ indoor public market, Newbo seems to still be doing well (at least it was full of tenants and shoppers/eaters, and it proved to be a good place to pick up a quick bite t before we hit the museum/studio tour).
Dirck was craving a burger so we stopped in Iowa City at Shine’s at about 4 p.m. and found out there’s a Sunday special – until 5 p.m. We each had burgers and fries for $12.73 total. Cheapest dinner we’ve had in a very long time. Maybe ever. The weather was so pretty that we decided to take backroads home, following F52 and a few other remote roller-coaster roads south of Interstate 80. They often struck us as “RAGBRAI roads.” We sometimes lost our way but found cool things including an unusually grant Romanesque church (St. Michael’s Catholic) in the small unincorporated town of Holbrook, circa 1867 (according to the National Historic Register plaque nearby.) Several old gravestones dated back to the 1880’s and most are Irish settlers. More details here.
Finally made it to the Figge Museum, thanks to the Des Moines Art Center’s Docent program. I enjoyed the French Moderns show, a traveling exhibit from the Brooklyn Museum, but also enjoyed the fabulous outsider art of William Hawkins, an exhibit of John Bloom (liked his rural scenes much more than the work of his known wife Isobel.) The Figge building, the first new major U.S. commission for English architect David Chipperfield (whose latest commission is an addition to the Met in NYC) is stunning. It’s clad in white see-through glass with huge windows looking out to the Mississippi and high white ceilings inside.
We stayed at the renovated historic Hotel Blackhawk which was organized by the tour, otherwise I would stick with a much less expensive Airbnb, although the hotel had some charming features including an old-fashioned atrium lobby and a funky bowling alley /bar in the basement. I’m also curious about the artsy Current Hotel, which has a fantastic rooftop bar called Up, with an outdoor patio with stupendous views of the river and lock and dam. We bumped into the Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell who was preparing for a debate today. We wished him well!
Dinner was very good at The Faithful Pilot, about a half hour drive north in LeClaire. Three others joined us and we were all happy with our meals and each other. We all had small plates. Dirck and I had excellent pork belly with potatoes plus mussels in a light tomato sauce. Glad we booked ahead. Small place and busy. It has a cool view of the old riverboat beached behind a glass wall in the local history museum and a cozy atmosphere, with an occasional train rumbling past, near the riverbank.
We had a mediocre lunch at Lagomarcino’s Confectionery in East Davenport. Better to stick with their specialties – -candy and ice cream. We did have a good chocolate milk shake. Also went to a nonprofit art gallery in rock island. Other Davenport restaurants to try: Me and Billy Cafe, Front Street Brewery and Duck City bistro.
Busy weekend visiting Noah in the Twin Cities. This trip we spent more time than we have in ages in St. Paul because Noah has moved there from Minneapolis. But we still made it back to our old stomping ground in Uptown, in part because we stayed again at a great Airbnb in south Minneapolis, in a 1917 stucco house a block from the bike trail along Minehaha parkway.
We checked out the revamped Sculpture Garden next to the Walker which looks a little shaggier and less manicured, thanks to the prairie plantings. I’m still a fan although I did notice that the spoon of the Oldenburg Spoonbridge and Cherry has a yellow water stain. I particularly liked the giant blue rooster sculpture. Noah did note, accurately, that several sculpture parks around the country seem to have work by the same sculptors and sometimes almost the same work. The McDonaldization of sculpture parks?
It took two tries (I botched the first one by failing to have my ID, believe it or not) we finally were admitted into Volstead’s Emporium, my first visit to a retro speakeasy, which I gather is a thing. To enter, we walked down a nondescript alley and stood in a short line in front of an unmarked industrial looking metal door where a guy occasionally looked out at us through a peep window he slid open and closed. After a suitable wait to make sure we felt we were entering some exclusive club (shades of Studio 54) he let various parties trickle in after others trickled out.
The atmosphere was very atmospheric – cozy little quasi-private booths, dim lighting, low ceiling, lots of old wood, vintage brass light fixtures and art nouveau wallpaper. We sat at a high top table by the bar and had pricey cocktails and shared some good desserts (key lime pie, a chocolate brownie with banana chip ice cream.) There were clever touches, like gilt-framed mirrors in the booths that opened, with an arm extending to serve people their drinks and food. This being Minnesota most people were wearing denim, plaid and/or flannel (including us) and the wait staff were friendly rather than haughty. We also noticed a few empty tables as we left, even though a few people were kept waiting out in the cold.
The previous night, when this 59-year-old did not have an ID to prove she is over 21 (why thank you) we ended up at a much louder bar nearby, the LynLake Brewery.