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Growing the Arts in Iowa

posted on February 19, 2009 at 6:26 PM

The quadrennial swarm of media and politicos covering the caucuses has exposed Iowa to much of the world. That contact, over a succession of election cycles, has encouraged a quiet migration of the skilled and entrepreneurial to the state. 

Some have settled in university and college communities, others in small towns around the state. In most cases the immigrants found their own way to those locales. 

However, Des Moines' transformation from a "sleepy" city to number four on Forbes Best Places to live list is the result of nearly two decades of planning and development. 

New developments to the infrastructure including a river walk and sports arena have changed the face of Des Moines. The city is also benefiting from a cultural transformation that is not only drawing people to downtown, but to the state.  

Deborah Vanko incorporates words in her art selected to create a psychological response.  Her intent is to inspire people to think and feel at a deeper level.  Vanko has created art for more than four decades, but makes her living as a psycho-therapist. 

Deborah Vanko: "I love to make my living from being an artist, but that's very difficult to do.  You do the art because you really want to do it and, and in a certain way you have to do it.  It's who you are, but you also want to show it to somebody."

Deborah's husband, musician, Lightning Red, makes his living making music.  The couple moved from Austin, Texas, to Des Moines this past fall.  Lightning Red is a national and international touring musician.  Des Moines’ central location and convenient airport were important attributes, but it was the cultural climate that brought them here.  

Deborah Vanko: "I researched the whole U.S. looking for certain qualities in the city and things like progressiveness and art scene, reasonable cost of living.  Part of the reason we came was about creative opportunity." 

Cultivating the arts in Des Moines has led to growth in fields that had previously been under-developed.

Amedeo Rossi:  "If you would meet somebody and they said I'm writer or they say I'm an artist, I'm a painter, I'm a performer, you know I'm an actor, you would probably say so what do you do?" 

Amedeo Rossi is co-owner of two downtown entertainment venues:  Vaudeville Mews and The Lift.  He also helped create the Fourth Street Theatre.  The venues provide performance space for music, art and theatre.    A life-long resident of Des Moines, Rossi worked for 12 years in human resources before becoming a full-time arts entrepreneur.  He helped organize last summer's, first-ever, 80/35 music festival.  The event is just one of the programs launched by the Greater Des Moines Music Coalition, a non-profit organization committed to building the city’s music economy.  The two-day festival drew 30,000 people to downtown. 

Amedeo Rossi:  "I think there's a cultural change that's happening, that individuals that value art want to make that part of their lifestyle." 

The Crossroads Entertainment Conference and Showcase aims to improve Des Moines’ cultural offerings by providing support for creative professionals.  December of 2008 marked the third year for this annual event that took place at several downtown venues.  Professional development opportunities included seminars ranging from “the ins and outs of multi-day festivals” to a “songwriters workshop”.  The conference was created by a group of Des Moines art and entertainment industry entrepreneurs.  More than a thousand professionals in art, music, theatre, film and tourism from throughout the Midwest participated in the conference.

Amedeo Rossi: "People don't work in vacuum.  You know a film needs a musical score.  You know a theater needs sound and design and lighting and, and so there are things that can happen internally with Crossroads that just helps bring people together that are creative."

The Crossroads marketing competition is an innovation, bringing together complimentary talents.  Six local bands were paired with student marketing teams from Iowa Colleges.  Grand View University won for their work; creating a press kit and marketing materials for the acoustic rock band The Honeybees. 

The conference also included a music showcase that featured nearly 20 bands.  The performances took place in the Court Center Building which has been renovated into five different venues.  Long time entertainment entrepreneur, Tom Zmolek, is one of owners of Court Center.  

Tom Zmolek: "The music economy here in Des Moines is really thriving even though you know we're in a recession and a lot of the industries aren't doing well." 

Zmolek is also chair of the Des Moines Music Commission, an organization established by the city to promote and develop the music industry.  The cultural synergy in the city is gaining the respect of both life-long residents and newcomers to the state. 

Lightning Red: "Des Moines is ahead in the game by having a music commission and an active blues society and to have entrepreneurs supporting the visual arts as is going on here is a wonderful thing."

Tags: art business culture economy entertainment Iowa music


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