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

As far as lawn ornaments go, John and Mary Pappajohn had the volume and type that were sure to attract the attention of the neighbors.

One would imagine they also attracted the attention and interest of world-class museums, because the Pappajohns are consistent and generous friends of the arts and their assortment of "lawn ornaments"—outdoor sculptures by major contemporary artists—was a treasure trove worth millions.

But when the Pappajohns decided to donate the collection, it went to their local art center for use in a city park.

It is billed as one of the most significant collections of outdoor sculptures in the United States.

"They wanted to give back to the community in which they live," said Jeff Fleming, director of the Des Moines Art Center, which owns the collection.

Completed in 2009, the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park is the crown jewel of a new mixed-use district in downtown Des Moines. The original donation to the Des Moines Art Center consisted of 16 sculptures by 15 artists. The collection was then curated and enhanced, and now consists of 25 pieces valued at $40 million. Twenty Modern and Contemporary artists are represented, including Jaume Plensa, Mark di Suvero and Deborah Butterfield.

The collection graces Western Gateway Park, built where derelict buildings once stood and intended to provide a memorable first impression and entry into downtown. John Pappajohn was a park investor. The Pappajohns approached the city about donating their sculpture collection not long after the park's completion.

"The plan was to put the artwork in the existing park," Fleming said, "but it quickly became clear we needed something better to do it justice."

The original park's designers, the New York architectural design firm of Agrest and Gandelsonas, were called back for the redo, but not until a citizen-led fundraising campaign brought in an impressive $6.5 million in a matter of months. Having just completed the original park, the city required the funding for the new one to come from donors.

Despite how poor the economy was in 2008, "Everyone immediately knew and sensed that this was something big that could be very impactful for the city's economic development," Fleming said.

Where there's a thriving art scene, "Workers want to work there, companies want to move there and tourists want to come," he added.