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Enjoy Iowa’s Diverse Arts and Culture Scene

Here, you can find fun for all interests and backgrounds.

By Kelly Rogers on April 4, 2023

National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque
National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium

Iowa embraces and celebrates diversity through festivals, parades and signature events as well as multiple museums across the state that provide a more in-depth, educational experience.

Here’s a sampling of what Iowa has to offer.

World Food and Music Festival in Des Moines, Iowa

Fun Festivals in Iowa

Iowans show up in force to celebrate the many cultures represented in the state, attending a wide range of festivals that celebrate food, music and traditions.

Iowa Irish Fest takes place each year in Waterloo, celebrating Irish culture with activities that include contests, classes, races, music and dance performances, workshops and demonstrations. Waterloo also hosts My Waterloo Days, which is a broader celebration of Iowa culture in general.

Cedar Rapids’ Welcoming Week is a week-long series of inclusive events, including the Cedar Rapids Festival Latino and AsianFest, designed to bring together immigrants, refugees and long-time residents to affirm the importance of welcoming and diverse communities.

For the widest range of cultural offerings, the World Food & Music Festival in Des Moines is the place to go. The festival has expanded so much over the years that it’s had to relocate from the downtown Des Moines bridges to Western Gateway Park, which is better suited to accommodate the 90,000-plus guests that attend annually. Nearly 50 vendors representing 27 countries offer affordable cuisine, with all of the meals costing less than $10.

“Attendees can spend the day or evening trying as many different vendors as they can as they take in the atmosphere, music and activities,” says Kyle Oppenhuizen, vice president of communications for Greater Des Moines Partnership. “People love to experience the vibrancy of this festival and sample food styles from around the world, and listen to a wide array of talented musicians and performers.”

Taking Pride Strides

Iowa has a long history of celebrating and championing diversity. Iowa City’s annual Pride Parade celebrated its 51st anniversary in 2022.

What started as a student march in the 1970s has evolved into a full-blown festival and parade that takes place the third weekend of June in downtown Iowa City each year, drawing crowds of 15,000 to 20,000 people.

“It’s such a positive, family-friendly experience, and we’ve got a lot of community support because of that,” says Jewell Amos, interim president of the 2022 Iowa City Pride. “We do a lot with trying to build bridges.”

There are other pride festivals outside of Iowa City, of course, including the Cedar Valley Pridefest in eastern Iowa that similarly highlights the area’s amazing diversity.

The Tradewind Sailboat, which crossed the Atlantic Ocean, is on display at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in downtown Decorah, Iowa.

Plenty of Magnificent Museums in Iowa

Iowa’s early history and heritage merit recognition throughout the year, not just at festival events – which is where museums come in.

A large percentage of Iowa’s earliest settlers came from Slavic and Scandinavian regions of Europe, and the assortment of country-specific institutions reflect that. Iowans interested in exploring this facet of history are spoiled for choice: There’s the Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn, the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids and the Dutch American Heritage Museum in Orange City.

There are other museums that celebrate the state’s heritage: The Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum in Burr Oak, the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque and the Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center in Orient are all worth a visit.

Three Sites in One

The Sioux City Public Museum in Sioux City offers three great sites: a two-story museum, a historic tugboat that showcases Missouri River history and a stunning Victorian-era mansion that can be toured quarterly.

Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School in Decorah, is unique in that it also offers classes that teach authentic techniques like wood carving, weaving and metal working.

“The Vesterheim has always had a strong collection of objects, about 33,000 items. But back in the 1960s, the director at the time saw the need to preserve some of the living traditions, so we started to teach classes here related to some of the folk art,” says Chris Johnson, Vesterheim CEO.

“Now, you can try your hand at making these objects, learn about the history of it and its significance – you get immersed in that history even more by fabricating that object.”

Shops and restaurants line the sidewalk next to the Englert Theatre in Iowa City, Iowa.

A Renewed Spotlight on the Arts in Iowa

A historic playhouse renovation and a repurposed building have put the spotlight on the arts in Iowa City and Council Bluffs.

Founded in 1912, the Englert Theatre is a Vaudeville-era playhouse that has contributed to Iowa City’s rich entertainment culture for over 100 years. Recently, the beloved building received some major updates and improvements, including a restored marquee, new lights, a gallery space for events and more.

“The biggest change is the expansion of public space in the second-floor lounge, which will be an additional space for performances, receptions and more,” says Katie Roche, development director for the theater. “The marquee probably hasn’t looked this good since the day it was installed in the late 1950s and has really returned to its rightful place as the centerpiece of the downtown.”

When the Englert opened back up in fall 2021, community members gathered around for the momentous relighting of the historic marquee. “People cried tears of joy,” Roche says. “It was a real moment of hope during hard times.”

The Englert Theatre is a shining example of Iowa City’s mission to make it the “greatest small city for the arts.” The city’s marketing campaign, Strengthen Grow Evolve, worked to strengthen the Englert with new programming, stronger community engagement and learning opportunities.

In Council Bluffs, a recent $18.5 million renovation to the former Harvester II Building, once used to distribute farm harvesting equipment, resulted in the Hoff Family Arts and Culture Center.

“The Hoff” is now a vibrant complex of buildings with amenities that include a 280-seat theater, rehearsal areas, gallery, artist studios, classrooms, teaching kitchen and more.

The center also houses local nonprofits like the American Midwest Ballet, Kanesville Symphony Orchestra, Chanticleer Community Theater and entrepreneurial food incubator Kitchen Council. Also on-site is PACE, short for Pottawattamie Arts, Culture and Entertainment. The renovation project resulted in an award from Preservation Iowa.

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