There’s more to see in Marshalltown than a year ago.
Many residents and visitors who haven’t been here in a while might balk at that statement because a tornado and derecho obliterated a staggering percentage of the city’s trees and reduced buildings to piles of bricks.
But as you walk down State, Main, Center, 13th and West Linn streets, vibrant colors fill the spaces these trees and buildings have taken with them.
The Marshall County Arts & Culture Alliance has sourced and overseen the completion of more than 20 public works of art over the past two years. Under the leadership of Executive Director Amber Danielson, The Alliance has left its fingerprints in brushstrokes across the city – and it’s hard to miss.
“Marshalltown has faced an immense number of challenges over the past four years with the tornado, derecho and pandemic,” Danielson said. “It didn’t take long for the murals to bring hope and joy at a time when we needed it most.”
The Marshalltown mural project was just an idea two years ago, and there have been pushbacks at times. People didn’t want to spend money on it or use time and resources that they thought could be better allocated elsewhere.
Some would say to Danielson, “I’m not an artist,” implying that they don’t see the value in it. Many didn’t think Marshalltown was ready for this type of program.
“The truth is that we are all artists and we all interact with arts and culture on a daily basis – often without even knowing it,” she said.
The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the movies and shows we watch, the music we listen to, the decorations in our homes, and our traditions are all prime examples.
Two years and 20 murals later, Danielson can breathe a sigh of relief and inhale gratitude and pride. It turned out to be a good idea.
His team proved that Marshalltown not only was ready, it was due. One of Danielson’s mottos borrowed from Grace Hopper is: “the most dangerous phrase in language (is) ‘We’ve always done it this way.'”
“Watching the program take off and soar has been one of the most rewarding journeys of my career,” she said. “We’ve heard from so many people who are filled with pride because of the murals and how much of an impact it has had on the joy they feel on a daily basis.”
Some notable murals include “Marshalltown’s Postcard Mural” on the south wall of Thompson True Value, “The Starry Night of Marshalltown” at Finley Interstate Bank, the 13th Street District/Chop Shop, and murals on the Tremont Building and Downtown Pocket Park.
These projects often go up in what can seem like the blink of an eye. One day, on the way to work, there is suddenly something that was not there before. Between meetings, pre-meetings, artist calls, funding, and approval, there are collaborations that Danielson has nurtured that make it all possible.
“We are proud to have so many great partnerships in the community and in many cases our role is to facilitate, connect and build bridges,” she said.
The most recent addition to the Alliance’s portfolio is the “Scherzo” sculpture installed at the Marshalltown Performing Arts Center. The project had been in the works for years as part of a partnership between the Alliance and the Auditorium Foundation, and it resulted in a 17-foot-tall structure made up of colorful musical notes and intertwining shapes.
“It was an honor to partner with them to help make their vision a reality,” said Danielson. “It’s only been installed for a few weeks, and it feels like the piece has always been there.”
“Scherzo” is adjacent to another large piece of public art, the “Drills” sculpture that stands outside the Roundhouse at Marshalltown High School.
Danielson graduated from MHS in 2008. She studied marketing, with a focus on distribution and logistics, and international business at UNI. After gaining experience in manufacturing, she made the leap into the Arts and Culture Alliance. She admitted the pivot was slightly intimidating, but looking back, she can’t imagine doing anything else.
With an initial focus on global commerce, she now focuses on creating art that makes a difference around a small town.
“It was completely outside of anything I’ve ever done, but it was an exciting opportunity,” she said. “It was life changing and one of the best decisions I’ve made in my career path.”
Measuring the community’s approval through social media responses, it seems that this decision and his ability to follow through have been embraced as part of the way forward for his hometown. Danielson was also recently named Chair of the Board of the Iowa Arts Council, giving her the opportunity to expand her public art efforts even further.
A number of public art projects are set to appear this year and in 2023, including additions to the mural project at the Orpheum Theatre, Sports Plus, VFW Post 389 and La Carreta. Next year, the Alliance offices will move to the Marshalltown Arts & Civic Center (formerly the Fisher Community Center).
Prior to this relocation, in the coming months, the Alliance will be launching a new master plan which was the result of facilitating focus groups and collecting community feedback. Danielson is also tied to the town of Marion.
“They have a 10-year master plan that has paved the way for a complete transformation of their arts scene throughout their community, but specifically downtown-focused,” she said.
There are community and arts leaders across the state and country who Danielson says are eager to share their experience and offer advice. The Alliance was inspired by other similarly sized communities like Dubuque, a city that Danielson considers to have one of the most successful mural programs in the state.
“We knew early on that we aspired to have a program like theirs,” she said. “Thanks to a great partnership with the art leaders in Dubuque, we have received incredible support and guidance along the way.”
Through research, mentorship, and the gathering of data and opinions, the Alliance focuses on creating art and programs in response to the needs, gaps, and desires of the people of Marshalltown.
“In everything we do, our primary mission remains to connect our community to arts and culture by supporting, promoting and enriching existing communities, and also by seeking out new possibilities,” she said.
Ultimately, Danielson believes the people of Marshalltown are the Alliance’s greatest asset. She simply asks them to come forward and speak up for arts and culture.
Few have the opportunity to see the results of their work on the walls of their city as they drive to work in the morning or pick up their children in the afternoon – perhaps an artist, an architect or a civil engineer . Danielson does a bit of every job in its own right by catalyzing a vibrant future filled with art.
Art is subjective. What is seen in abstract and geometric shapes will be a different experience to varying degrees for the person standing next to them. It could bring out a seemingly unrelated memory and leave them feeling nostalgic, or it could inspire them to discover the artist in you.
“Arts and culture are essential to our lives, personally, professionally and community-wise,” said Danielson. “Arts and culture in community development are key to making a place feel special and authentic to the people who live there.