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Discussion: Growing Iowa's Art Scene - The Business of Culture

posted on February 25, 2009 at 9:19 AM

Funded in part by the Greater Des Moines Community Foundation, the goal is to make 80/35 an annual event that will help raise Des Moines' status as a regional center for arts and entertainment.  But such ambitions are not confined to Iowa's capitol city. 

The arts are an active ingredient in the economic development mix of nearly every corner of the state.  Someone who tracks that activity is Kathryn Dickel.  She is partner of IowaTix, a ticket service company for entertainment events across the upper Midwest.  She is also a partner in Swaelu Media which produced the Crossroads Entertainment Conference and Showcase. 

And also with us on the program tonight is Robert McConnell.  He is also aware of the arts traffic.  He is music director of the Southeast Iowa Symphony that regularly performs in Ottumwa, Burlington and Mt. Pleasant and serves a 19 county area in Southeast Iowa. 


Paul Yeager:To the both of you, welcome to The Iowa Journal.  Robert, we'll get to you in a moment.  But first Kathryn I want to talk to you.  What does someone who has been in Des Moines for ten years think about the culture of this city?

Kathryn Dickel: Well, I think they think it's growing and it's got a lot more to offer than it did ten years ago.  I grew up in Des Moines and I can say that being somebody who has grown up there and now it's just a whole different world really. 

Certainly when 80/35 happened last year all of us in the entertainment community in Des Moines kind of looked at each other and were just so excited because the dream finally happened, we made it work.  So I think we're just going nowhere but up right now.

Paul Yeager: You talked about maybe ten years before, twenty years but what about forty years?  Somebody who has been here a lot longer time maybe saw a huge renaissance come to this town.  What does somebody who has been here forty years think about the arts culture in this city?

Kathryn Dickel: Well, I think that they probably would have some sense of pride because there's been a lot of people working a long time behind the scenes to make something like this happen.  So, I think we're very lucky that we had a good infrastructure base happen maybe twenty or thirty years ago with the Civic Center and the building of the Des Moines Art Center and I think the new generations have come in, a lot of entrepreneurs have come in and built on that legacy.

Paul Yeager: What is the drive to make Des Moines "the" place?

Kathryn Dickel: Well, I think we're looking to leverage our location right now.  We are at the crossroads of a lot of major markets in the upper Midwest.  80/35 intersects here so a lot of entertainment gets routed through Des Moines but has never stopped here before. 

And I think a lot of the initiatives that have been happening over the last five years have really been geared towards having people stop and realize that we are in the center of the wheel so to speak.

Paul Yeager: Center of that wheel, the crossroads of sorts.  80/35 it's a great name and it makes total sense the way things are traveling around.  I had an artist today I was having a conversation with and they were talking a little bit about more of the art community than maybe the music community but they said think of it more of -- artists need to think of it as a business not a charity but it also gets into the profit and non-profit role that every organization plays. 

Which should each of those either a profit or non-profit play in building the arts in this community?

Kathryn Dickel: One of the major goals of the Crossroads Conference was to bring those two communities together because through our work at IowaTix we were seeing that those communities weren't communicating and we couldn't believe that they weren't.  I think the number one challenge for anybody working in the entertainment community is to start defining themselves as an entertainment industry. 

For years people have either seen themselves as a non-profit or a museum or an artist or a musician or a theater person or a filmmaker and they didn't really understand that we are all part of one industry, we go after the same dollar so to speak, we have a lot more power together as an industry than our separate parts. 

So, the Crossroads Conference really works to bring genres together, to bring for profit and non-profits together so they can learn from each other and come together really as an industry to start moving us along in a more profound economic development way.

Paul Yeager: It certainly sounds like they can exchange ideas and profits says oh, that works for them, that works for us.  Well, one thing that's been a profit, Robert, has been the farmer's market in Des Moines.  It's been something that has really grown in ten years.  The government really helped the farmer's market grow for the farmers.  So, what is the farmer's market for the arts?

Robert McConnell: I guess what I would say is -- first of all you stumped me with that question.

Paul Yeager: It's the first time I've ever done that, Robert, stumped somebody with a question.

Robert McConnell: Well, what I would say first from the government that we expect, from the Iowa government, is that we expect something akin to equal funding as what other states have and we're not seeing that in Iowa. 

Iowa is really hanging out at the bottom on per capita spending.  Not just our orchestra but tons of art groups look at that as seed money.  If you want to put it in the farming analogy and take it there we depend on that money and it has a huge return for the state.  Right now I think we said we're 45th or something in per capita spending. 

When I grew up it was a very different situation.  Just looking south at Missouri, Missouri now ranks among the top 20 in arts per capita spending and Iowa is in the bottom five states.  So, I guess what I would say is I think our state can afford to be at least on equal footing with Missouri on a per capita basis and that money -- when you talk about the turnover -- let's take our organization, we're a mixture of professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs and then volunteers which I'm sure, Kathryn, you see a lot in the various arts organizations. 

So, when the state puts money into those organizations they are planting seeds, they are doing something to help development across the state.  What we typically see in the Southeast Iowa Symphony two main types of people that come in as outsiders, not the people that already live here, but people that retire to Iowa they are looking for arts quality when they move into an area and also people that are looking at business transfers. 

We want Iowa to be a place that say somebody is going to be transferred into a major plant in Ottumwa or Burlington or Muscatine they're looking at our organization, they're looking at the Quad Cities Symphony, Cedar Rapids, these groups and they're saying there's a lot here that we can have.

Paul Yeager: How do you grow from 45th to 20th like Missouri?  What does the government have to do to help things out?  We're in tough budget economic times and it would pretty hard I would imagine for some lawmakers to say yes, I spent money on the arts.  How are they to defend putting money to an organization like the Southeast Iowa Symphony?

Robert McConnell: I think statistically you can look at money that is put into arts and look at the amount of turnover you have.  Unfortunately I believe the arts package was removed as part of the national stimulus bill. And that was done by separate legislation which is just astounding to those of us in the arts community because money that goes into the arts is turned over.

It's not money stuck away in some other investment or put in somebody's savings account or used necessarily to pay off debt, it is turnover by people that really are people making our cultural life viable in the United States. 

So, I would just say to Iowa you have to make that commitment if you want to stay at least equal with your competitors because we are competing with other states on quality of life issues.

Paul Yeager: We think of infrastructure for building roads, building bridges, the need to be important for attracting businesses.  What is the infrastructure of arts then?  Does it start in the classroom?  Does it start in schools?  In communities?  What is the infrastructure of the arts then?

Robert McConnell: Are you just deliberately trying to stump me here?

Paul Yeager: Well, I open it up to Kathryn too, go ahead.

Kathryn Dickel: I think one of the things that we can say to legislators right now is that we're not talking about something that is going to happen in the future.  The entertainment industry in Iowa is already producing multi-millions of dollars for the economy. 

I think we'd like to see maybe the entertainment industry be put into maybe the Iowa Value Fund matrix so there's already three industries that are qualified for funding for that.  We think the entertainment industry should be brought into that as well. 

The culture corridor just did a recent study and that is non-profits from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids that showed there was a $31 million impact just in that part of the state and that was just non-profits, that's not taking into consideration any of the for profit entertainment venues, the smaller clubs, the restaurants, those types of things. 

So, I think if we could get a larger study done that shows the impact of both for profit and non-profits we would see hundreds of millions of dollars being put into the economy from this industry. And I think that once they hear that and they see the jobs that are created around that they'll understand that this is something that needs to receive more funding.

I think there needs to be a liaison between the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Iowa Department of Economic Development because a lot of arts communities are learning how to make their own money and not just rely on grant funding. And we want to continue to do those types of things.

Paul Yeager: So, that goes to the point of they're thinking of themselves as businesses and not charity and going that way.

Robert McConnell: Those studies are out there.  That's part of what I was saying to you is they need to do the homework.  It's not like we have to do a special study to justify it here, it's very clear the impact of the arts.

Paul Yeager: In fact, one of the last studies I think was in 2003 so that's almost a six year old study so obviously it needs to be turned around there a little bit. 

Let's go back to education just a little bit if we could.  In schools we know we like to think of ourselves as having good bands, good choirs, good drama, good speech.  Is that a good start for us?  How do we capitalize on what is in our schools now, build what's in our schools to be even better to lay that groundwork for the future of the state?

Robert McConnell: Well, I was speaking to somebody on my way up here today about this and they said one of their fears is that the arts will be something that's usually on the chopping block first along with some sports programs in the school districts and that is a very big deal. 

I think, again, to go back to the farming analogy this is seed and you have to constantly replant, you have to constantly build and that is what the schools do for us. 

They give us an audience and they give us people to go out in the future and take part in the arts.  As far as the future in Iowa I really support the kind of work that they are doing here because unfortunately in the past people have looked at moving out of the state to really take part in the arts and I think part of our job. And I think Tom Vilsack did a very good job of highlighting this is making Iowa a place where people want to stay and I think the arts is one of the pillars of that.

Paul Yeager: So, keep somebody who is maybe a senior at Ottumwa High School and not let them go to Julliard but let them stay in the state?

Robert McConnell: Let them go to Julliard and come back.

Kathryn Dickel: I want to say that a lot of the arts whether you're looking at film or music they are really gateways into new technologies.  They are often times on the cutting edge of new technologies and that is what young people are all about these days and I think that we could really tailor our programs in schools to take advantage of teaching our children about these new technologies through art and prepare a workforce for the entertainment industry. 

I know the film community here has received tax incentives to bring Hollywood films here and some have come but they're struggling right now to find people that actually are qualified in the technologies and in the industry to work on those films.  So, if we could start earlier and bring kids into that technology I think we'd see them staying here and also supporting a growing industry.

Paul Yeager: I think the Iowa Film Association has actually had classes where they have taught people to be grip 101 or to run camera or to run audio or lights or whatever it is so more in that direction. 

I want to use a quick example, the Iowa born band The Nadas came up through Ames and have stayed in Iowa but they write the music, they play the music, they publish the music, they print the music, they distribute it.  Would a group like that benefit the entire state, more groups like that?  Do you think we'll see more groups like that that can keep their talent in the state and do a lot of the stuff themselves?

Kathryn Dickel: I think we can see more of that as long as we start investing in the entrepreneurs that are making that happen.  The Nadas, they're great musicians, they're great songwriters but they are also great entrepreneurs and they have built their own infrastructure in terms of how they are getting their music out there. 

If we can continue to support people like that in their endeavors so we see a great band and we say how can we support you, how can we get your album printed, how can we get your music out there, if we can start doing those types of things we will see them stay here and I think that any time you can build an industry in any state you're going to benefit that state and you're certainly going to keep the young people here through that kind of pipeline.

Paul Yeager: Kind of like an entrepreneur of sorts would be a way to go along that line, okay.  What do you think of that model, how that works?

Robert McConnell: Our situation is very different with the Southeast Iowa Symphony.  Our mission statement part involves the musicians and part involves the audience.  We exist there to provide opportunities for people to perform.  So, consequently we draw our performers from about 120 mile radius at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa Wesleyan College is actually where we're based.

We actually draw some performers from western Illinois and northern Missouri too.  So, that is part of it, we're providing that in a rural area. 

The other part is providing the performing, the listening opportunities for audiences.  We spend quite a good chunk of our budget going out, we actually take ensembles into schools, larger ensembles, not quartets and quintets, larger ensembles into schools, we do anatomy of the orchestra concerts and this type of thing. 

So we're really -- I would say when I'm listening to Kathryn we're more focused on just the quality of life issues in rural areas and giving people opportunities and that makes it a livable place. 

I know so many musicians -- I'm from Washington, Iowa, Pat Hazel, great musician, Catfish Keith, they're both there, friends in Burlington, friends in Fairfield, Keosauqua, Bentonsport, all these little towns all around Iowa and I just think that's part of what makes living here worthwhile.

Paul Yeager: You get ten seconds to say what is worthwhile in the future for Iowa and music and art and history and culture.

Kathryn Dickel: I think what would be worthwhile, again, is for all of us to come together and really connect.  There's so much more power and this is one entity and one group whether we're in rural Iowa or not.

Paul Yeager: I hate to cut you off, Kathryn Dickel I appreciate you coming in and Robert McConnell as well.  That is going to do it for this Iowa Journal.  Again, things always go so fast and that will wrap us up tonight. 


Tags: art business culture economy entertainment Iowa music