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Iowa Yields Bumper Crop of Amazing Artists

A passionate and creative culture can be seen (and enjoyed!) throughout the state.

By Patsy B. Weiler on January 13, 2022

Art on the River, Dubuque’s annual public art display
City of Dubuque

Corn may be king in Iowa, but the state is also home to a bumper crop of talented artists, beautiful galleries, interesting exhibits, creative classes and workshops, and many more forms of original expression.

“We are known for our corn and soybeans. But a great tagline that I saw on a T-shirt said ‘Arts Grow Here.’ I loved it,” says Heather Johnson, executive director of the Octagon Center for the Arts in Ames. “The sentiment captures the essence that ingenuity and creative endeavors are also an important part of Iowa.”

Octagon Center for the Arts in Ames

Octagon Center Helps Shape Ames Arts Scene

The Octagon Center’s roots run deep in the city’s art scene. Four incredibly spunky women, who desired to foster the arts in Ames, joined forces in the 1960s, plunked down the rent for a 100-year-old octagonal house to hold classes and exhibits, and planted a creative legacy that is still blooming strong.

These days, the center is in the former historic Masonic Building in the heart of downtown on Douglas Avenue, where classes for all ages are offered. It is the site of various exhibits and the organization’s retail gallery.

“In 2021, we celebrated our 50th annual Octagon Art Festival in September. We drew thousands of people downtown, had artists representing five Midwestern states and enjoyed an amazing day,” Johnson says. “We represented 482 artists in a year with the gallery shop, exhibits and the art festival.”

“Young David,” left, and “Wild Rose” murals in downtown Dubuque, IA
Nathan Lambrecht

Passion for Public Art in Iowa

Iowans have a passion for public art – from their famous 50-foot-tall Molecule Man sculpture in Council Bluffs to the Voices Mural Project in Dubuque, where entire sides of buildings have become the canvases for beautiful murals.

Nearby on the port side of Dubuque, the Art on the River display is a part of the Mississippi Riverwalk. Folks can stroll and gaze at the beautiful sculptures that are changed each year.

Not to be missed is the popular Moberg Gallery of contemporary art in Des Moines that expanded to a 7,000-square-foot space with a sleek new showroom after moving to its new address on Grand Avenue in 2020. The Iowa Artisans Gallery, a cultural gem in downtown Iowa City for 37 years, features unique, American-made gift and decor selections from local and regional artists displayed in the historic, light-filled Paul-Helen Building.

Art on the River in Dubuque, IA

Fun and Learning

Iowa is home to treasured learning initiatives such as the Grant Wood Art Colony and the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. The Colony, located at the University of Iowa, celebrates the life of the state’s most famous artist, Grant Wood, creator of the 1930 “American Gothic” painting and provides three fellowships in painting and drawing, printmaking and interdisciplinary performance to honor his legacy.

Lakeside Laboratory is a 147-acre campus located on scenic West Okoboji Lake, providing university students hands-on learning. Their Writer-In-Residence and Artist-In-Residence programs encourage writers, scientists and artists to interact in new and innovative ways to understand and interpret the natural world.

“It is impossible to be a vibrant community without a thriving arts community. The arts help us step outside of our daily lives by provoking us – emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

Mary Skopec | Iowa Lakeside Laboratory

“Iowa Lakeside Laboratory is a living laboratory, connecting people to our natural areas and immersing them in lessons that only nature can teach us,” says Mary Skopec, executive director of Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. “Here, artists, writers and scientists derive inspiration from each other and share their unique perspectives on the world. The result is a richer, deeper and lasting experience for all involved.”

Skopec is ardent when addressing the importance of art across the state. “The arts are a symbol of a creative community,” she says. “A creativity that may manifest itself in new economic initiatives or problem solving because the arts expand our minds in ways that are not only beneficial to the individual but the community as a whole.”

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