Imagining an Uptown Artway in Iowa

October 27, 2017

By: Amber Bisinger

Marion, IA (population 37,000) is home to a historic commercial district, which has served as the community’s civic and cultural hub for 176 years.  A major streetscape project disrupted traffic in Uptown Marion, and city leaders wanted to find ways to help businesses stay afloat during the construction phase.  The alleyways have been transformed into welcoming walkways that the community started using prior to the roadwork.  Dramatic infrastructure improvements took place and the area became an attractive canvas, with public installed and cultural programming bringing customers to businesses’ back doors. 

The ImaginArt in the Alley project, now referred to as Uptown Artway, has given the district new life. The space features nine, permanent public art installations and serves as the perfect pedestrian destination with new restaurants, pubs, gathering spaces and lighting to illuminate the night scene.

The project area encompassed the intersecting alleyways between 10th & 11th Streets and 7th & 8th Avenues, as well as easements for gathering spaces adjacent to private property.

“This project has given new life to an under-utilized space in the heart of our community,” said Marion Mayor Nicolas AbouAssaly. “The public art installations and new gathering spaces are a great source of community pride and contribute to the quality of life that we enjoy.”

The impetus for this work dates back to 2009 as Marion’s Central Corridor Master Plan was being developed. A consultant suggested thinking of ways to creatively use the alleys when one of the main thoroughfares through the City is reconstructed. This recommendation was echoed by Dan Burden, co-founder of Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, during his visits to the community a few years later. With encouragement from Main Street Iowa, the community submitted a Letter of Interest for a grant from ArtPlace America that would help make the City’s historic commercial district more pedestrian friendly and complement the reconstruction of 7th Avenue. In the summer of 2014 it was announced that Marion was the only entity in Iowa to receive ArtPlace funding. The grant of $350,000 was the 13th highest award in the nation. A leadership team was established to guide the project, which included City and Chamber of Commerce staff members and an art director/fundraiser.


Collaboration, in every sense

This project was collaborative in every sense of the word. Visioning sessions were held in conjunction with Marion's Blue Zones Team, walkability expert Dan Burden and more than 60 community members. Design students and art staff from local high schools and Iowa State University cooperated with Marion business owners with a goal of generating ideas to make their back entrances more inviting for customers.

An artist selection panel was formed to organize public input and develop an artistic vision for the project. And an engineering firm assisted the City in development of designs and engineering for the infrastructure enhancements.

A national call for artists was issued to solicit proposals for the public art exhibits. Eighty proposals were submitted by regional and national artists. Nine permanent art installations were selected - five of which feature the work Iowa artists.

Construction work began shortly after a groundbreaking ceremony in May 2016 and the project was dedicated as Uptown Artway one year later.

While the alleyway was getting a facelift; transformations to the buildings surrounding the alley were also happening. Historic buildings were restored using federal and state program dollars and a local match from the City. These incentives were critical to the final layer coming in from the private business community.  So far, Marion has seen 1 full alley block renovated, 4 historic buildings renovated, 4 other building renovations underway, 9 businesses added and new apartments in Uptown.

The combined efforts of many have created an amazing new place for the community to come together.

“To experience the artwork in Uptown Artway, it’s best to take a leisurely stroll and linger at the various gathering spots where nine amazing projects enliven the space,” said Karen Hoyt, art director for the project. “Seating, lighting and several large flower boxes have been added to create a welcoming atmosphere, day or night.”

Marion residents take pride in their community’s reputation for public safety, having been recognized as one of the safest cities of its size in Iowa for the past 16 years. Unsurprisingly, any instance of disrespect for public and private property is taken as an affront to the entire community. When the project was close to completion, a vandal applied spray paint over the head of the young girl featured in the stage mural. The layer of spray paint was removed, but the artist from Miami had to return.

Fortunately, the vandal was identified on social media, charged with second-degree criminal mischief. In an interesting turn of events, when the artist was repairing the damaged area of the mural the vandal approached her to apologize for his crime.

In order to deter criminal behavior and create a pleasant ambience, several light poles were installed in key locations throughout the alleys and cameras were installed to monitor pedestrian activity. We also learned that special anti-graffiti sealants can be applied to protect valuable public art.

Through this project, what was once a neglected part of our city has become a great source of community pride. The combined efforts of many have created an amazing new place for the community to come together.