PROGRESS 2022: Painting the town — Arts & Culture Alliance celebrates progress, new master plan

T-R PHOTO BY AUSTIN CHADDERDON — Amber Danielson is a 2008 MHS graduate. After completing degrees at MCC and UNI, she returned to Marshalltown where she has been the Executive Director of the Marshall County Arts & Culture Alliance since 2016. Danielson has orchestrated the completion of over 20 works of public art including murals and sculptures.

There’s more to see in Marshalltown than there was 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 erased a staggering percentage of the town’s trees and reduced buildings to piles of bricks.

But driving down State, Main, Center, 13th and West Linn streets, vibrant colors fill the spaces that those trees and buildings took with them.

The Marshall County Arts & Culture Alliance has sourced and overseen the completion of over 20 public works of art in the past two years. Under the leadership of Executive Director Amber Danielson, the Alliance has left its fingerprints in brushstrokes across the town — 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 provide hope and joy in a time we needed it most.”

The Marshalltown mural project was just an idea two years ago, and there was pushback at times. People didn’t want to spend the money on it or use the time and resources they thought could be better allocated elsewhere.

Some would say to Danielson, “I’m not an artist,” implying they don’t see the value. Many didn’t think Marshalltown was ready for this type of program.

“The truth is, we are all artists, and we all interact with arts and culture on a daily basis — oftentimes 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 with our homes and our traditions are all prime examples.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO — Ames artist Lauren Gifford painted murals for the Marshalltown Sidewalk Safety Project at nine schools in the Marshalltown: Franklin, Fisher, Woodbury, Rogers, Anson, Hoglan, Lenihan, Miller, MHS, Marshalltown Christian School and St. Francis. The murals were completed between the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021.

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.

Her team proved that not only was Marshalltown ready — it was due. One of Danielson’s mottos borrowed from Grace Hopper is, “the most dangerous phrase in the 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 who are filled with pride because of the murals and how much it has impacted the joy they experience on a daily basis.”

Some notable murals include “Marshalltown’s Postcard Mural” on Thompson True Value’s south wall, “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 commute to work, there’s suddenly something that wasn’t there before. Between the meetings, pre-meetings, calls to artists, funding and approval, there are collaborations that Danielson has nurtured which make it all possible.

“We are proud to have so many great partnerships around the community and in many cases, our role is facilitating, connecting and bridge building,” she said.

The most recent addition to the Alliance’s portfolio was the ‘Scherzo’ sculpture installed at the Marshalltown Performing Arts Center. The project had been in the works for years in a partnership between the Alliance and the Auditorium Foundation, and it resulted in a 17-foot-tall structure composed of colorful musical notes and shapes intertwined together.

“It was an honor to partner with them to help make their vision become a reality,” Danielson said. “It’s only been installed for a few weeks, and it feels as though the piece has always been there.”

‘Scherzo’ is adjacent to another large piece of public art, the ‘Drills’ sculpture which stands outside the Roundhouse at Marshalltown High School.

Danielson graduated from MHS in 2008. She studied marketing, with an emphasis on distribution and logistics, as well as international business at UNI. After gaining experience in manufacturing, she made the jump 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 business, she now concentrates on building up art that makes a world of difference around a small city.

T-R PHOTO BY AUSTIN CHADDERDON — Kansas artist Stephen Johnson, pictured, designed the “Scherzo” sculpture that now stands in front of the Marshalltown Performing Arts Center. Johnson has a large art portfolio and has designed public art pieces from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.

“It was completely outside of anything I have ever done, but it was an exciting opportunity,” she said. “It was life changing and one of the best decisions I have made in my career path.”

Gauging the approval of the community through social media responses, it seems that decision and her ability to follow through have been embraced as part of the path forward for her hometown. Danielson was also recently named the Chair of the Iowa Arts Council board, providing an opportunity to expand her public art efforts even further.

There are a number of public arts projects slated to appear this year and in 2023, including additions to the mural project at the Orpheum Theater, Sports Plus, VFW Post 389 and La Carreta. In the next year, the Alliance’s offices will move to the Marshalltown Arts & Civic Center (formerly the Fisher Community Center).

Prior to that relocation, in the next few months, the Alliance will launch a new Master Plan that was the result of facilitating focus groups and gathering input from the community. Danielson also connected with the city of Marion.

“They have a 10-year master plan that has led the way for a complete transformation of their art scene throughout their entire community, but specifically focused on the downtown,” she said.

There are community and art leaders across the state and country that Danielson said have been eager to share their experience and offer advice. The Alliance has been inspired by other similar sized communities like Dubuque, a city that Danielson sees as having one of the most successful mural programs in the state.

“We knew very early on that we were aspiring to have a program like theirs,” she said. “Thanks to a great partnership with the art leaders in Dubuque, we received amazing support and guidance along the way.”

Through research, mentorship and gathering of data and opinion, the Alliance is focused on building up art and programs in response to the needs, gaps and desires of the people who live in Marshalltown.

“In all the things we do, our mission at the core remains to connect our community to arts and culture by supporting, promoting and enriching existing communities, and also by seeking new possibilities,” she said.

Ultimately, Danielson believes the people of Marshalltown are the Alliance’s greatest asset. She simply asks them to show up and speak in support of arts and culture.

Few get the opportunity to see the results of their work on the walls of their town as they drive to work in the morning or pick up their kids in the afternoon — maybe an artist, architect or civil engineer. Danielson does a little of each job in her own right by catalyzing a vibrant future filled with art.

Art is subjective. What one sees in abstract and geometric shapes will be a different experience to some varying degree to the person standing next to them. It might pull forward a seemingly unrelated memory and leave them waxing nostalgic, or it could inspire them to uncover the artist within yourself.

“Arts and culture are essential to our lives, on a personal, professional and community level,” Danielson said. “Arts and culture in community development are critical to making a place feel special and authentic to the people that live in that place.”


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