The Des Moines Arts Festival® traces its beginnings to 1958 when the Des Moines Art Center hosted its inaugural Art in the Park on the grounds of Des Moines’ fine art museum. In 1997, with the advent of revitalized downtown urban energy, momentum grew to reinvigorate the 40-year-old event. Armed with a new name and a new location, the 1998 Des Moines Arts Festival splashed onto the downtown bridges that span the Des Moines River, showcasing the nation’s premiere artists and creating an opportunity for people of all ages to embrace the arts.
The first Art in the Park attracted little more than a few hundred people. Nearly five decades later, the Festival has established itself as the signature arts and culture event in Iowa and one of the most prestigious and admired festivals in the world. With an annual attendance exceeding 200,000 people since moving downtown in 1998, the Festival has welcomed more than 2.1 million visitors.
Early in the Festival’s growth, it was determined that the exhibiting artists would drive the focus of the show. As a juried art fair, the Festival developed strong relationships with recognized organizations like the National Association of Independent Artists and International Festivals and Events Association. These relationships assisted in developing the artist program, which is now one of the strongest in the nation.
The relationship with Des Moines Art Center continues today with a portion of the proceeds from the Festival supporting the city’s art center. Its leadership serves on the Festival’s board and their presence during the Festival contributes to its overall legitimacy.
In 2000, the Membership and Art Gift Certificate programs were created to strengthen the Festival’s emphasis on art. Two years later, Nurturing a Student’s Vision (NSV) was developed to encourage children in their passion for the arts. The program has since blossomed to include more than 80 metro schools and over 300 kids and their artwork. NSV continues through the year with artwork displayed at downtown Des Moines’ Central Library. Participating students are honored by the Des Moines Art Center with a family membership and a certificate of achievement.
Beginning in 2002, participating artists were asked to demonstrate their craft during the Festival. Such demonstrations helped to make the art more accessible and create a better understanding between the artists and their artwork.
In 2003, the Festival reached new artists in the state of Iowa through the Emerging Iowa Artists program. This unique program provides an opportunity for residents of Iowa who are enrolled at any institute of higher education across the nation to display and sell their artwork during the Festival. The artists are juried along with the professional artists, but are not charged fees to either jury or participate.
Answering the call from Des Moines’ growing diverse population, the Festival featured a Global Performing Arts Stage in 2004. Along with two other stages providing music entertainment throughout the Festival, the Global Performing Arts Stage was dedicated to a variety of entertainment from music to dance to gardening lectures.
The 2006 Festival brought about the most significant change since 1998 with a new site and new leadership. Since access to the traditional Festival site on the downtown bridges would be under construction, the Festival would need a new location. Eight blocks west of the site, construction was concluding on the new David Chipperfield-designed library and the John and Mary Pappajohn Higher Education Center. Surrounding these two marvelous buildings was Phase One of Western Gateway Park. In this all-new green space in the downtown community, the Festival found its new home. In March of 2006, the Festival recruited seasoned festival and event executive Stephen King to Des Moines as its new executive director.
In 2006, the Festival was awarded the Bronze Grand Pinnacle Award from the International Festivals & Events Association, along with eight Pinnacle Awards for achievements in marketing, merchandise, and programming.
The Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2007 with a special performance by The Joffrey Ballet and several new initiatives. Interactive art took a front seat with the GuideOne Insurance Interactive Mural. The collective hand of the community created two billboard-sized replicas of Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Irises. The performing arts were also highlighted with live street theatre roaming the Festival site throughout the weekend. We even celebrated the Festival load-in with LIVE! Load-In Thursday at Blues on Grand! All of this combined with new live music, visual artists, arts activities and more, made the Festival’s 10th anniversary something to remember.
In 2008, the Festival added the Interrobang Film Festival to its roster of art-centric activities to celebrate the art of film. The juried art fair expanded to include 175 professional visual artists. Two new GuideOne Insurance Interactive Murals created of The Hour of Tea by Frederick Carl Frieseke and Autumn, New Hampshire by Maurice Prendergast. And the 2008 Festival went green by beginning a reduce, reuse and recycle program. The 2008 event was also named the No. 5 Top Art Fair and Festival in the nation by AmericanStyle Magazine.
In 2009, more than 255,000 people came to the Western Gateway Park to enjoy the Festival. Along with our line-up of professional and emerging artists, we embraced the art of performing and brought in national singer/songwriter, Gavin DeGraw in partnership with the Hy-Vee Triathlon. We continued to look at ways to expand the Festival and in 2009 began to embrace the art of being "green." The Festival put in place an expanded recycling program in an effort to make the Festivalthe greenest its been with the recycling of paper, aluminum and plastic as well as using all serving ware made of recyclable materials including cups made out of corn. One last addition to 2009 was the presence of the "Blitz Build" in conjunction with Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity. The 1,100 square foot home was hauled in for the Festival where people could contribute for a day, an hour or any amount of time to display their art of giving to others. The exterior of the house was successfully completed and hauled offsite Sunday for an area Des Moines family to enjoy.
2010 proved to be another successful year for the Festival with an attendance of 235,000 despite the extreme heat and damaging overnight storms. With over 1,300 artists applying the jury had the difficult duty of selecting only 185 of the top professional artists throughout the country. Alongside the artists, this was the first year the Festival was able to incorporate the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. It served as the centerpiece for the grounds of the Festival and patrons were invited to walk through and experience the park. The Des Moines Art Center went one step further and developed many activities within Sculpture Park Central. Docent lead tours were available for all along with kids activities including creating their own sculptures and sketch books.
The Festival became a bit more “techy” for 2010 with the development of an iPhone app. This on-the-go piece provided artist information, activity schedules entertainment and more. This app will become a staple for the Festival and will hopefully grow into a wider reach to apply to additional smart phones.
The Festival also continued its commitment of “going green” and implemented F. A. D. with the help of local artists and official sponsor, Hy-Vee. Six local artists were asked to create recycling kiosks out of found, applied and donated objects. The end results were pieces of artwork that served a function of recycling for all materials on the Festival grounds. The 2010 entertainment grew this year throughout the three spaces: U.S. Cellular Stage, GuideOne Performing Arts Stage and the Jazz & Wine Pavilion presented by Meredith. All three spaces had continuous entertainment and the U. S. Cellular Stage kicked off the weekend with American Idol contestant Katelyn Epperly Friday night. The GuideOne Performing Arts Stage had an eclectic mix of comedy, poetry, theatre, and dance while the Jazz & Wine Pavilion swept patrons away with smooth jazz from various local groups, including local favorite, Max Wellman.
2011 marked a more aggressive approach to the Festival's green program by instituting a number of policies requiring participating vendors to engage. Communications went electronic, water stations replaced water bottles effectively eliminating thousands of disposable bottles, beverages were sold in compostable cups made from corn-based materials; all generators moved to a biodiesel blend; and all vinyl banners were recycled to bags that were sold in 2012 as part of the Festival's merchandise program. Additionally, the Festival partnered with Habitat for Humanity for its second Blitz Build. The Interactive Sculpture Project took on new dimensions with a 30 foot by 25 foot inverted ice cream cone
2012 marked the Festival's 15th Anniversary. An all-Iowa line-up of live music celebrated on Friday night of the Festival with the return of perennial Des Moines favorite, The Nadas. The home grown talent included Thankful Dirt, Rebel Creek, James Biehn, and Bonnie Finken. The Festival's interactive activity joined forces with The Principal Financial Group® to create a giant mural for Paint the Skywalk. Emerging Iowa artist Abby Butson's work was feature in the 10'x13' mural that was permanently installed in The Partnership Building's Skywalk following the Festival.
2013 was a year introducing new partnerships. The Civic Music Association partnered with the Festival and Pavilion sponsor, Meredith Corporation, to host the Jazz and Wine Pavilion. The Pavilion introduced new wines from partner Gateway Market. A new approach to the GuideOne Performing Arts Stage resulted in nationally celebrated comedic performer Roberto the Magnificent. Register Media introduced its popular Where at the Festival to Festival guests. The winner received a new iPad. Habitat for Humanity returned to the Festival with its third Blitz Build. The art of craft beer was introduced to the 2013 Festival with the Iowa Craft Beer Tent. Craft beers from 13 breweries were available throughout the weekend.