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.

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.

The sculpture park—essentially an outdoor museum—is the most dramatic part of a sweeping downtown revitalization plan.

"From the day it opened, people have flocked to it," said Don Tripp, director, Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department. He recalled with a chuckle an encounter with a farmer in bib overalls and a flannel work shirt, who gaped at a sculpture and pronounced it "the damndest thing" he'd ever seen. His response was gratifying to Tripp, who envisions a park system in which public art takes a place of honor along with nature and recreation.

The park is not just important for culture but also for commerce.

"We tore down taxable property and put in park space expecting that companies would build corporate headquarters here, and it is working," he said. "Open park space and cultural attractions do drive economic development."


Des Moines Art Center:

Des Moines Parks & Recreation:

PHN Architects:

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.