“A lot of it, I don’t recognize,” said my 26-year-old son, who now lives in Minneapolis, as we walked around his hometown of Des Moines. “Downtown looks pretty good!”
Some of the credit for that goes to public art enthusiasts, who have not only dotted downtown Des Moines with sculpture, installations and murals but have created an Art Route that helps visitors and locals find 87 artworks. A free app also provides the locations, plus details about artists including Claes Oldenberg, Louise Bourgeois, Maya Lin and Joel Shapiro.
The downtown Art Route’s western portion — dominated by the popular John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park — will be particularly busy June 22-24, when it is the site of the Des Moines Arts Festival, which includes a juried exhibition.
On a sleepier spring weekend, my husband and I explored the 6.6-mile Art Route DSM (artroutedsm.com) with visiting millennials — our son, as well as our daughter and her husband, who live in Chicago.
As a Des Moines transplant, I’ve long admired the art around town. But recently, I started noticing green dots painted on sidewalks and painted street intersections, which, I learned, denote the art route.
On the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation’s website (dsmpublicartfoundation.org), I found out that the route stretches primarily around three west-east thoroughfares: Grand Avenue, Locust Street and Walnut Street. (I also learned that a Canadian street artist painted the street intersections/“installations.”)
Much of the art locations/green dots are west of the Des Moines River near the Pappa-john Sculpture Park, where more than two dozen contemporary sculptures sit on an undulating 4.4-acre grassy site divided by curving paths. Some of the route’s artwork is located along the river or east of it, in the burgeoning East Village neighborhood and by the gold-domed State Capitol.
Because the route does not have a designated start or end (or numbered stops), I arrived with a rough DIY plan and two helpful tools from the public art foundation website — a printout of the route map and the Public Art App, which I downloaded on my phone.
The Pappajohn Sculpture Park proved a logical starting point, thanks to its concentration of art. Opened in 2009, the park is an old favorite by now, so we zeroed in on recent additions including Japanese sculptor Yayoi Kusama’s 8-foot-high “Pumpkin Large” and Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s rainbow-mirrored “Panoramic Awareness Pavilion.”
While visiting a signature park piece — Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa’s “Nomade,” a 27-foot-tall hollow human form made of a latticework of white steel letters — I stumped the Chicagoans by asking them to guess which sculpture Plensa designed in their city’s Millennium Park. (The surprising answer: “Crown Fountain,” the video sculpture that includes two 50-foot glass towers displaying Chicago residents’ faces, whose mouths spout water.)
As we admired New York graffiti artist Keith Haring’s untitled sculpture of three dancing figures, we used another helpful tool — a free audio podcast walking tour from the Des Moines Art Center. Following posted instructions, we dialed a number on my phone, entered the number on a sign in front of the Haring sculpture and listened to an erudite recording. (An engaging family guide is also available on the Art Center website, desmoinesartcenter.org.)
Before leaving the park, we gazed up at the dramatic building under construction nearby, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The five-story Krause Gateway Center — the Kum & Go convenience store chain’s new headquarters — is already a presence, with its massive scale and sculptural look including high glass walls separated by four overhanging white horizontal planes.
“The Piano” is among several architectural gems we passed. Others include the 2006 public library, clad in daylight-permeable copper windows and designed by British architect David Chipperfield; and the recently renovated Catholic Pastoral Center, a 1962 steel and glass modernist building by Mies van der Rohe. Another highlight: two cool contemporary pedestrian bridges over the river — the 2010 Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge, which arches over a dam, and the Red Bridge, an 1891 rail bridge that got a modern makeover in 2005.
Heading northeast, we stopped at the familiar and impressive sculpture park beside the modernist American Republic Insurance building. But we also spotted unfamiliar work, including a colorful mural painted on the back of a building we have driven past for years.
Some of the art turned out to be inside buildings closed on a Sunday, but still visible. We peeked through glass to see Maya Lin’s installation “A Shift in the Stream” inside the Principal Corporate 4 building lobby and Sol Lewitt’s colorful painting “Whirls and Twirls” inside the Pappajohn Education Center.
We also realized that the route is long — especially on foot — so we did only a portion before stopping for a drink in the East Village. Next time, we may try the route via bike.
Where to eat and sleep
West of the river, casual drink and dining options include Exile Brewing Co. (1-515-883-2337; exilebrewing.com) and Americana Restaurant (1-515-283-1212; americanadsm.com). East-of-the-river options include the Republic on Grand (1-515-518-6070; therepublic ongrand.com) atop the six-story AC Hotel (1-515-343-6026), with an open-air bar serving brew, bites and city views. Also convenient to the Art Route is the new Hilton Des Moines Downtown (1-515-241-1456).
Greater Des Moines Convention & Visitors Bureau: 1-800-451-2625; catchdesmoines.com.
Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog Take Betsy With You.