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Out & About: Fairfield, Iowa

posted on April 17, 2008 at 4:15 PM


In recent years, arts and culture have been recognized as one of the engines of economic development.

One rural Iowa community that has truly embraced that notion is Fairfield.

Friday, April 18, 2008, a 3-weekend run of Godspell starts in the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center. On the musical side the Center hosts diverse artists and styles from broadway musicals, to opera to country and western and more.

Our Out and About correspondent Dan Kaercher explores Fairfield’s various cultural venues.

Laid out in 1839, Fairfield was officially incorporated in 1847. A typical Iowa farming community, it hosted the very first State Fair in 1854.

Parsons College ... a small religious affiliated liberal arts school opened in 1875. By 1893, the town had the first Carnegie Library outside of Pennsylvania – and a new courthouse.

For decades, people went about building farms and homes, businesses and schools. In short, they built a community.

Then in the 1970s, Parsons College closed and the campus was bought by what is now called Maharishi University of Management, rooted in the principles of Transcendental Meditation.

These days, Fairfield is home to both a grain elevator and meditation domes. There’s a Hy-Vee and Everybody’s Whole Foods store.

It’s been a big change for the town. And it hasn’t always been an easy fit between the old-timers and their new neighbors. But that’s not what this story is about. This story is about how a town with a rich cultural heritage got even richer.

These days, on the first Friday evening of every month, Fairfield’s streets look like they did when farm families came to town on Friday or Saturday nights.

This is the First Fridays Art Walk, named Iowa’s Tourism Event of the Year in 2005.

Celebrating all kinds of art, the Walk is built around a different theme each month. On our visit it was Heritage Art. And there was art of various kinds in galleries, restaurants, book shops and even a bank --- along with music, an antique doll and toy show, activities for children and food.

Early in the evening we talked to Cathy Wadsworth, executive director of the event.

Cathy Wadsworth, Executive Director, 1st Fridays Art Walk: “Each Art Walk we have ranging from about 30 – 60 volunteers that put this all on. It’s an amazing event. The whole community just comes together and makes this all happen.”

The Art Walk was started by newcomers from the meditating community. But it found fertile ground here.

Fairfield boasts a native son who was a professional artist in the early 1900s. You can see some of Harry Shriner’s work in the new library.

Several pieces of public art were commissioned by the local art association that’s existed since the 1960s.

And local high school students contributed their efforts most recently to a barn quilt project.

Their teacher spent this First Friday at the museum, one of the oldest in the state, in the old Carnegie library.

Among other things, it proudly displays Native American art, some Roman antiquities and the history of Fairfield’s Louden Machinery Company.

Mark Shafer, Fairfield Art Association: “The Louden catalogs in the teens and twenties, they were like little hard bound books with wonderful kind of arts and crafts style borders, almost art nouveau some of them.”

And there’s even more to Fairfield’s cultural scene than the visual arts.

We stopped by a rehearsal for Godspell in the very new Fairfield Arts and Convention Center. Its theater is named for Stephen Sondheim, a modern, musical theater luminary. This is not a road show, it’s being produced by the center which often brings in national and regional talent.

But connecting to the outside world is not new here.

Judith Ward, Fairfield Area Community Theatre: “As far back as the mid to late 1800s, we had Chautauqua days.”

So Fairfield’s always been interested in the arts and performing and bringing people in from the outside to share in the community.

This building celebrates all that and more – with a display about Parson’s heritage, a gallery for the Fairfield Art Association and a floor mural that depicts the courthouse that stands right across the street.

Mayor Ed Malloy, Fairfield: “We felt that with this new building, there was an aspect that we wanted to preserve in terms of our history and also celebrate in terms of our new direction. --- We felt that the blending and putting that together was extremely significant for us.”

It’s an Iowa tradition, the past and the present coming together for the future.


The Box Office at the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center: 641-472-2787 (ARTS)

Tags: art artists Fairfield Iowa painters paintings


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