Facility Profile - February 2011
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Recreation Center: Sculpting a Space

John & Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in DES MOINES, Iowa

By Dawn Klingensmith


The park's simple, meadow-like layout was replaced with a design concept that arranges the sculptures into a narrative sequence and allows for the unexpected. Concrete parabolic waves form open earthen berms, which serve as outdoor rooms or galleries that group the art into a series of collections.

Fleming described the design as hills with cutouts. The cutouts each make a walled-in space that's parabolic in shape and perhaps a bit intimate.

Other spaces in the park are raised or wide open so visitors can behold massive works of art from afar.

Mark di Suvero's 29-foot-high, bright red painted steel piece titled T8 marks the western edge of the park and is highly visible—it's the first thing people see when they drive into the city. It has an interesting provenance. The Pappajohns bought it from a dealer who acquired it from the sculptor's ex-wife, who won it in their divorce settlement but let it languish in storage for a few years.

From east to west on the north side of the park, the groupings of sculpture start with figurative pieces, like Butterfield's graceful horse titled Juno and Louise Bourgeois' bronze Spider, a tribute to her mother who weaved.

Plensa's three-story human figure titled Nomade dominates the landscape. It is hollow and cage-like (people can walk inside it), and is made up of scrambled steel letters that the artist perhaps envisioned as building blocks to ideas, and as essential as cells to human existence. This was not one of the pieces that sat on the Pappajohns' front lawn. After the sculpture park project was underway, the Pappajohns saw Nomade at an art show while traveling and purchased it for the park.

"It has become the iconic image for the park," Fleming said, "and we can see it becoming that kind of instantly recognizable image for the city."

Moving west, visitors will find organic and abstract sculptures. From west to east on the south side of the park is a progression of geometric forms.

The city maintains the park, while the Art Center owns and maintains the sculptures. Part of the $6.5 million in donations paid for park renovations, art installation and security equipment, and the rest provided for an operation and maintenance endowment.

"It functions as a city park. It's free, open and accessible, and right in the heart of downtown," Fleming said.

Special events and wedding ceremonies are allowed with a permit, but permit holders do not have exclusive use of the park. Wedding parties are not to throw rice or birdseed, nor scatter rose petals.