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Marion, IA Brings Art to the Alley

ImaginArt in the Alleys turns underused space into community gathering place

By Laura Hill on February 12, 2018

Marion, IA
Marion / Steve Woit

Strolling through Marion’s vibrant new Uptown Artway, you’d be hard-pressed to imagine that it once was an average urban alley, full of utility lines, trash receptacles and underused back entries to Seventh Avenue businesses.

Today, it’s a unique destination, a lively community gathering place bursting with large-scale art installations, a stage, outdoor seating, flower boxes and ample opportunities for memorable selfies.

“It’s unique in all the world, and it really reflects our culture in Marion,†says Karen Hoyt, art director for the ImagineArt in the Alleys, the original name of the initiative.

The project was completed in May 2017, thanks to widespread community support and financial investment and a $350,000 grant from ArtPlace America, a national organization.

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Thinking Proactively

The alley redevelopment plan came about as city government and community leaders considered how to implement an upcoming streetscape of the city’s historic main street, Seventh Avenue. A previous streetscape project in the 1980s had seriously burdened businesses, something they hoped to avoid this time.

“We wanted to head it off at the pass and think proactively,†Hoyt says. “We realized that as part of our central corridor redevelopment plan we should try to revitalize the alleys behind our shops. We wanted to encourage customers to come in back entrances, in hopes that it wouldn’t disrupt businesses so much. At the same time, we thought we could turn an underutilized space into an asset for the whole community.”

As part of significant infrastructure work, power lines were buried, trash dumpsters were consolidated, a stage was constructed, and landscaping, seating and lighting were added. Five adjacent property owners donated public access, providing extra usable space.

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Art with Color, Sound

The city commissioned works of art for the alley, decided upon by a volunteer jury that worked closely with the community to determine what residents wanted to see in the space.

“We did a lot of visioning, and people said they wanted us to satisfy three purposes: that works be functional, reflect our community and be colorful,†Hoyt says. “It was a very, very complicated process, like curating an exhibition in a museum.”

Nine works of art were ultimately chosen from 80 responses to a national call, about half from Iowa artists and half from around the country. They include huge lighted leaves sprouting from stems, to a “drawing room†complete with fireplace, to soaring stained glass panels, to iconic lighted columns that change color and emit sounds.

“You come upon them as you walk through the alley,†Hoyt says. “We wanted to give people surprises as they walked through, giving them something to talk about.”

Although the space includes one fanciful mural behind the stage, works are mainly large sculptural pieces. Response to the project has been extremely enthusiastic, Kaufman and Hoyt say, and plans for public events are in the works.

“We’re really hoping that the community will utilize that space for public events – music, readings, artist demonstrations, community theatre practices, interesting yoga,†Kaufman says. “There are endless opportunities there; it’s a cool place to have an event.”



We wanted to give people surprises as they walked through, giving them something to talk about.

Karen Hoyt
art director for ImagineArt in the Alleys
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