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Downtown and the Arts

July 19, 2023
Downtown and the Arts

Downtown development/downtown revitalization doesn’t typically come with a magic recipe. Nearly everything we do represents a piece of a puzzle that capitalizes on a unique downtown’s strengths while diminishing its weaknesses. Or it capitalizes on a new idea that creates investment and excitement.  

An active focus on the arts can have many benefits.  Nearly every community wants to provide a unique downtown experience, improve walkability, and make their downtown district a place residents and visitors want to be. Every community also wants to provide quality of life experiences and things for residents to do. Taking advantage of local talents to get that done is a no brainer.

This is a good time to explore opportunities, especially as the Iowa Downtown Resource Center joins with Empower Rural Iowa and the former Department of Cultural Affairs’ Iowa Arts Council under one division at IEDA. As Director Durham has said, arts and culture represent a pillar of economic development, and this collaboration will only strengthen our programs.

The arts can bolster a community’s efforts to revitalize and breathe fresh air into a downtown development effort. We see the arts as both a short-term catalyst and a long-term driver of downtown development. In the short term, the arts can be a powerful spark that spurs greater interest, engagement and civic pride. Murals, pop-up exhibits and festivals all do this well. 

Longer-term, experience and data show the presence of brick-and-mortar arts and culture anchors – live music venues, theatres, museums, performing art centers – are closely linked with attracting more out of county visitors, boosting local spending at businesses, hotels, restaurants and even increasing business innovation scores. 

The arts can take many forms. While it's definitely not a case of one size fits all, there are a few approaches that seem to work. Many communities have found success hosting regular arts events downtown, including open studio nights, music concerts or crawls, First Friday events, etc. In other communities, it may be more practical to integrate art into existing events, like the Farmers’ Market or a community festival. Public art – ranging from video projections to sculpture exhibits and mural trails – has become increasingly popular in recent years. 

The key thing, I think, is to connect your arts assets to some type of an experience. People want to interact with the arts in more dynamic settings and ways, so it's important to consider that on the front end and to be realistic about your capacity to deliver, beyond simply adding public art into the built environment.

The Iowa Arts Council offers a number of different grants that can help with short-term and longer-term downtown development efforts through the arts. Speak with our staff about your project and which grant is best. 
Most regions and many communities in Iowa are served by a local arts council or agency. They are a great place to start, especially in terms of identifying artists and other collaborators that can help carry out creative projects in downtowns. In other cases, the chamber, city, or another partner organization may be best positioned to help. Among rural communities, Creston is a great example of the local arts council helping to develop its downtown. We've also enjoyed seeing the progress in smaller towns like Grinnell and Jefferson, both of which are harnessing the arts to build capacity and momentum in their downtowns. Downtown Iowa City stands out among our larger communities in this respect. The Cedar Rapids Mural Trail and the Art in the Alleyways program in Marion are good examples.

Communities are encouraged to work the arts into their downtown development strategies.  The Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Arts Council, Iowa Downtown Resource Center and Center for Rural Revitalization are ready to help.

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