Ask someone to name U.S. cities with booming creative scenes and they’re likely to name the usual suspects: New York or L.A.; maybe Austin, Nashville, or Portland. One you probably won’t hear is Des Moines, Iowa—a state capital that has long been the realm of insurance workers and ag execs who flee the desolate city center after business hours.
But the city has been changing quickly over the past decade, posting the fastest population growth of any major metro in the Midwest in 2016, and 40 percent growth since 2007. In that time, the number of people living downtown has more than doubled. As the boom rolls on, the city’s creative boosters are on a quest to “create culture” by marketing their home as an option for creative entrepreneurs being priced out elsewhere—and to generally change the image you might have of the region. That might seem like a tall order, but the pitch can be distilled to a message many larger cities can’t credibly make anymore: We’re creative, we’re affordable, and you can help us stay that way.
“We want artists to be part of the conversation, and my impression is there are other places where decisions are being made around them, instead of with them,” said Sally Dix, executive director of Bravo Greater Des Moines, the region’s arts organization. “They will be part of deciding how we grow.”
A key part of that effort is making sure a growing city can remain affordable, even if prices increase in the future. The hope is to avoid the predicament seen in Austin, where a survey found more than half of the city’s artists are thinking about leaving, and nearly a quarter say they’re in a “precarious” position with their lease. Des Moines already hasn’t been immune to some of these pressures: Three artist buildings closed in Des Moines in recent years and are being converted to apartments and condos.
One of the most ambitious efforts to avoid that problem is Mainframe Studios, a project that is now the largest nonprofit arts space in the U.S. The idea: create permanent, affordable workspaces for artists by funding the project up front so that it’s financially self-sustaining, meaning low rents (as cheap as $114 a month) can be enough to cover operations and contribute to an endowment.
“Every day, we see headlines about artists being priced out, and it’s even happening here in little ol’ Des Moines,” said Siobhan Spain, director of Mainframe. “We want to learn from what’s going on in other cities, and we think we’ve created a model that approaches the problem in a proactive way.”
The building, a 160,000-square-foot former insurance call center in downtown Des Moines, has been transformed into modern studios with floor-to-ceiling windows, concrete floors, and 16-foot ceilings.
So far, it holds 85 artists repping a wide range of fields. When the build-out is done, that number will more than double—and there’s already a long waitlist. The demand is largely from artists in Iowa, but about 20 percent have come from out of state.
Mainframe tenant Adam Van Wyk, a Hollywood storyboard artist, had previously been operating out of one of the now-shuttered artist studios that is being converted into loft condominiums after operating for 20 years.
“The owner wanted to retire; I mean, I can’t blame him—but, yeah, that wasn’t part of the plan,” Van Wyk said. “Luckily, I could move into Mainframe, and in theory, shouldn’t ever have to move again. Even cooler is that it will be here for artists long after we’re all gone.”
Much of the city’s efforts are being centered and guided by a regional cultural assessment commissioned by Bravo as part of the city’s “Capital Crossroads” strategic five-year plan. The assessment’s recommendations included building networking hubs (like Mainframe) and reviewing city codes that could be slowing down creative businesses.
“One of the things we learned is that artists here weren’t feeling as connected to the resources, mentors, and community as they want to be, so we want to focus a lot of energy on that,” Dix said. “Mainframe is a good start, but we plan to do more.”
Indeed, artists say the biggest benefit to the new space is community—both getting to work alongside fellow artists and also engaging with people during events like First Fridays, when studios open the doors to the public. Another new effort is a study commissioned by Bravo and the Des Moines Arts Festival. Led by artist Chris Dahlquist, who also assisted Kansas City with arts initiatives, the aim is to study how Des Moines can provide even further professional development opportunities for artists.
Housing costs are a major factor in attracting and retaining artists. Currently, Des Moines’ cost of living is 10 percent lower than the national average, and it’s one of the top three markets for millennial home purchases. But as many other cities have seen, affordability often suffers with growth. The city is working with the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech to identify gaps with its workforce and housing projections in the coming years.
“We want to make sure factoring affordable housing happens before development does, and we’re figuring out now how to make that happen,” said Nikki Syverson, director of Capital Crossroads.
When it comes to actually funding cultural projects like Mainframe, Des Moines has had to get creative. Iowa ranks 47th for state funding for the arts, so public-private partnerships, individuals, and businesses have been key. With Mainframe, the county provided about $300,000 in grants, and Bravo gave over $170,000 to the project—but that’s a drop in the bucket, with a total $12 million needed. It’s mainly been possible due to individual donors. Other projects in the works include a new 65,000-square-foot skatepark on the river, funded by a wealthy local businessman; the downtown Des Moines Social Club, founded by East Coast transplant Zachary Mannheimer in 2007; and more than 90 public art installations around town, including the newest 30-foot tall Kerry James Marshall monument, largely funded by individuals.
Artists here generally agree that Des Moines has its pros and cons. For one thing, it’s certainly not New York in terms of exposure. One painter with a studio in Mainframe talked about the hurdles to accessing buyers and shows, for instance. But most of the spaces are filled with artists and creatives who find it easy to do their work from anywhere.
“The reality is we’re still exporting more twenty-somethings than importing,” said Mannheimer, who now works at an engineering firm overseeing creative placemaking initiatives in rural communities. “The next step we need to make is to change that.”
One Mainframe tenant, clothing designer Lori Lawler, moved back to Des Moines after 17 years in Los Angeles to open up a vintage clothing store and workshop space. She admits the adjustment to life in Iowa—namely, the harsh winters—hasn’t been easy. Overall, though, she says it’s been worth it.
“When I start finding myself comparing Iowa and California, I realize it’s not fair to either place—or myself,” she said. “Here, it’s about family and community and pursuing a dream I wouldn’t have been able to pursue in L.A.”
And maybe that’s the essence of it.
“We’re not New York, we’ll never be New York, and we’re not trying to be New York,” Dix said. “But the things that make the city a great place to live for anyone—affordability and community—are what makes it a good place for artists. In Des Moines, you can have a seat at the table and play a part in how we move forward.”