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Creativity Counts

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Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but in Iowa City, there’s beauty and then some. With the rise of public art pieces in its walkable downtown scene, tourism has also benefitted.

The Iowa City Public Art Advisory Committee, recently passing its first deadline to fund its annual Matching Grant Project, will award $2,000 each for selected public art proposals through 2018.

Whether visual, audio, or performance-based art, like sculptures, readings, interactive exhibits, video projections, or spoken word—only 2-3 proposals usually get funded from a pool of under a dozen submissions.

Marcia Bollinger, public art coordinator for the City of Iowa City, is head of the committee and decision process. Bollinger has managed 13 projects in the past four years.

“Primarily, we’re looking for creativity and feasibility of the project, especially whether or not it can actually happen,” Bollinger said. “Not that we’re getting applications that are outlandish, but we have to keep look at our resources.”

In terms of physicality, art ‘structures’ must have an ideal location. This is usually chosen by the city, as well as its duration of display, based on the piece itself. Artists’ involvement with other individuals or organizations in the city is also important. But as long as proposals are well thought-out, said Bollinger, they’re considered.

“The impact of public art on economic developments is a given. People come to the city for a variety of reasons, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, enjoying the general culture," she said.

Although a majority of Iowa City residents don’t intentionally seek out public art, it’s when they’re “out and about” that matters. To Bollinger, it’s just another layer of how the effects of art can positively manifest in a community over time. Merely seeing and appreciating works can make residents feel that their surroundings are a vital, quality environment—somewhere they want to continue to live and spend money in.

"The [Prairie Box] (above) was unusual because it was very interactive," Bollinger said. "People could enter it and spend time there. So we had to review it as a safety issue, and make sure that all the risks were minimalized, and that there were railings, accessibility ramps ... The goal is to create a welcoming environment." 

Like the Prairie Box, public art that's considered thought-provoking, nostalgic, or political can increase a sense of an area's well-being and belonging. As a form of expression, even “bad” art can positively add to the identity of a place and generate discussion.

Betsy Potter, Director of Operations for the City of Iowa City since 2013, advocates public art and how it assists local spending. A busy schedule of public events can lead to more business for restaurants and hotels.

Over summer 2016, the Iowa City Downtown District conducted over 14 programs at Black Hawk Mini Park, a 3,600-square-foot space off Washington Street. Rallies and gatherings like 100+ Men + Women, Flyover Fashion, and the Downtown Holiday Market have since drawn thousands.

Participation in certain sculptures and projects directly correlates with an increase in civic engagement, meaning voting, volunteering, and charitable work, as documented by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

The Iowa Arts Council, a nonprofit government organization to build and sustain learning in the arts, has funded almost $1.6 million dollars in 2017 to public projects. These categories include humanities, music, and theatre through all age levels—an increase of over $240,000 since 2015. With this, there's been an overall increase in tourism expenditure from Iowa visitors.

Although many artists contribute to the growing creative expression in the streets, to be a participating artist doesn't have to be daunting. Recent UI alumna Cassandra Garza won second place in Benchmarks, a participatory public art project, for a bench she designed in spring 2017.

The three-year-old program brought together local artists to paint and design Iowa City benches to make public art more accessible—and quite literally more comfortable.        

“The application process itself is quite simple. It asks about an idea you would like to bring to life and the significance of said idea, along with a sketch,” Garza said. “No artistic background is needed.”

Winning 2nd place was surprising to Garza. Realizing that art is often seen as a cop-out—a challenge not taken seriously—she's inspired to participate and build a support system of minorities in the area.

Depending if art within the city is functional for mood or just something to look at, it will always impact someone differently,” Garza said. “Iowa City is definitely heading in the right direction, giving artists the opportunity to make their mark and add new hidden gems.”

In an economic study by Bravo Greater Des Moines, arts and culture remains a highly-ranked component that businesses use to evaluate trends. Public art and curator organizations employ almost 23,000 Iowans, and 73,000 across the state's creative fields.

"In all, that’s about four percent of our workforce,' said Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds in 2016.