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Our History

The Des Moines Arts Festival traces its beginnings to 1958 when the Des Moines Art Center hosted its inaugural Art in the Park on the grounds of Des Moines' fine art museum.

Our History

The centerpiece of the Des Moines Arts Festival is the highly competitive Juried Art Fair presented by Nationwide. Festival artists are selected through a rigorous, industry acclaimed blind jury process that takes place over the course of multiple days. The process is completed by five jurors who are privy to images of the artwork with associated pricing, booth images and an artist statement. No other information is provided to them. This intensive process results in a collection of vibrant, innovative, and masterful original works of art. The wide array of art in every medium is what attracts Festival guests year after year, who annually spend more than one million dollars on art at the Festival.


The Weight We Carry 

Clifton Henri

Chicago, IL


The Des Moines Arts Festival traces its beginnings to 1958 when the Des Moines Art Center hosted its inaugural Art in the Park on the grounds of Des Moines' fine art museum. In 1997, with the advent of revitalized downtown urban energy, momentum grew to reinvigorate the 40-year-old event. Armed with a new name and a new location, the 1998 Des Moines Arts Festival splashed onto the Downtown bridges that span the Des Moines River, showcasing the nation's premiere artists and creating an opportunity for people of all ages to embrace the arts.


The first Art in the Park attracted little more than a few hundred people. Nearly five decades later, the Festival has established itself as the signature arts and culture event in Iowa and one of the most prestigious and admired festivals in the world. With an annual attendance exceeding 200,000 people since moving downtown in 1998, the Festival has welcomed more than four million visitors.

Early in the Festival's growth, it was determined that the exhibiting artists would drive the focus of the show. As a juried art fair, the Festival developed strong relationships with recognized organizations like the National Association of Independent Artists and International Festivals and Events Association. These relationships assisted in developing the artist program, which is now one of the strongest in the nation.


In 2000, the Membership and Art Gift Certificate programs were created to strengthen the Festival's emphasis on art. Two years later, Nurturing a Student's Vision (NSV) was developed to encourage children in their passion for the arts. The program has since blossomed to include more than 100 metro schools and over 300 kids and their artwork. NSV continues today as the Student Art Exhibition (SAE) throughout the year with artwork displayed at various locations throughout the metro.


Beginning in 2002, participating artists were asked to demonstrate their craft during the Festival. Such demonstrations helped to make the art more accessible and create a better understanding between the artists and their artwork.


In 2003, the Festival reached new artists in the state of Iowa through the Emerging Iowa Artists program. This unique program provides an opportunity for residents of Iowa who are enrolled at any institute of higher education across the nation to display and sell their artwork during the Festival. The artists are juried along with the professional artists, but are not charged fees to either jury or participate.


Answering the call from Des Moines' growing diverse population, the Festival featured a Global Performing Arts Stage in 2004. Along with two other stages providing music entertainment throughout the Festival, the Global Performing Arts Stage was dedicated to a variety of entertainment from music to dance to gardening lectures.


The 2006 Festival brought about the most significant change since 1998 with new leadership and a new site. In March of 2006, the Festival recruited seasoned festival and event executive Stephen King to Des Moines as its new Executive Director. Since access to the traditional Festival site on the Downtown bridges would be under construction, the Festival moved eight blocks west to Phase One of Western Gateway Park. In this new space where construction was concluding on the new David Chipperfield-designed library and the John and Mary Pappajohn Higher Education Center, the Festival found its new home.


Later the same year, the Festival was awarded it’s first of 13 Grand Pinnacle Awards from the International Festivals & Events Association, along with eight Pinnacle Awards for achievements in marketing, merchandise, and programming.


The Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2007 with a special performance by The Joffrey Ballet and several new initiatives. Interactive art took a front seat with the Interactive Mural Project. The collective hand of the community created two billboard-sized replicas of Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night and Irises. The performing arts were also highlighted with live street theatre roaming the Festival site throughout the weekend. The Festival load-in was celebrated with LIVE! Load-In Thursday at Blues on Grand! All of this combined with new live music, visual artists, arts activities and more, made the Festival's 10th anniversary something to remember.


In 2008, the Festival added the Interrobang Film Festival to its roster of art-centric activities to celebrate the art of film. The juried art fair expanded to include 175 professional visual artists. Two new Interactive Murals created of The Hour of Tea by Frederick Carl Frieseke and Autumn, New Hampshire by Maurice Prendergast. And the 2008 Festival went green by beginning a reduce, reuse and recycle program. The 2008 event was also named the No. 5 Top Art Fair and Festival in the nation by AmericanStyle Magazine.


Along with a line-up of professional and emerging artists, 2009 embraced performing art and brought in national singer/songwriter, Gavin DeGraw in partnership with the Hy-Vee Triathlon. We continued to look at ways to expand the Festival and in 2009 began to embrace the art of being "green." The Festival put in place an expanded recycling program in an effort to make the Festival the greenest its been with the recycling of paper, aluminum and plastic as well as using all serving ware made of recyclable materials including cups made out of corn. One last addition to 2009 was the presence of the "Blitz Build" in conjunction with Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity. The 1,100 square foot home was hauled in for the Festival where people could contribute for a day, an hour or any amount of time to display their art of giving to others. The exterior of the house was successfully completed and hauled off-site Sunday for an area Des Moines family to enjoy.

Over 1,300 artists applied for the 2010 Festival giving the jury the difficult duty of selecting only 185 of the top professional artists throughout the country. Alongside the artists, this was the first year the Festival incorporated the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. It served as the centerpiece for the grounds of the Festival and patrons were invited to walk through and experience the park. The Des Moines Art Center went one step further and developed many activities within Sculpture Park Central. Docent-lead tours were available for all along with kids' activities including creating their own sculptures and sketch books.


The Festival continued its commitment of "going green" and implemented F. A.D. with the help of local artists. Six local artists were asked to create recycling kiosks out of found, applied and donated objects. The end results were pieces of artwork that served a function of recycling for all materials on the Festival grounds. The 2010 entertainment grew throughout the three spaces.


2011 marked a more aggressive approach to the Festival's green program by instituting a number of policies requiring participating vendors to engage. Communications went electronic, beverages were sold in compostable cups made from corn-based materials; all generators moved to a biodiesel blend; and all vinyl banners were recycled to bags that were sold in 2012 as part of the Festival's merchandise program. Additionally, the Festival partnered with Habitat for Humanity for its second Blitz Build. The Interactive Sculpture Project took on new dimensions with a 30 foot by 25 foot inverted ice cream cone.


2012 marked the Festival's 15th Anniversary. An all-Iowa line-up of live music celebrated on Friday night of the Festival with the return of perennial Des Moines favorite, The Nadas. The home grown talent included Thankful Dirt, Rebel Creek, James Biehn, and Bonnie Finken. The Festival's interactive activity created a giant mural for Paint the Skywalk. Emerging Iowa artist Abby Butson's work was featured in the 10'x13' mural that was permanently installed in The Partnership Building's Skywalk following the Festival.


2013 was a year introducing new partnerships. The Civic Music Association partnered with the Festival and Pavilion sponsor, Meredith Corporation, to host the Jazz and Wine Pavilion. The Pavilion introduced new wines from partner Gateway Market. A new approach to the Performing Arts Stage resulted in nationally celebrated comedic performer Roberto the Magnificent. Habitat for Humanity returned to the Festival with its third Blitz Build. The art of craft beer was introduced to the 2013 Festival with the Iowa Craft Beer Tent. Craft beers from 13 breweries were available throughout the weekend.


In 2014 guests interacted with one of the art world's most famous paintings as Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges-Pierre Seurat came to life over the three-day Festival. The 2014 Festival marked a resurgence of activity in the relaxed and shaded atmosphere of Jazz & Wine Pavilion. A refreshing variety of music from local and regional artists was presented. With the goal to further engage with guests, the Festival introduced the all-new interactive media zones. These interactive media zones were hosted by media partners WHO- HD News Channel 13, Clear Channel Media + Communications and Des Moines Radio Group, featured boosted Wi-Fi, smartphone charging stations and social media streaming. Saturday was capped off with a fireworks celebration visible from anywhere onsite!


In 2015 "Birds of a Feather," was commissioned for Metro Arts Alliance's 40th anniversary and painted with help from thousands of visitors at the Festival. The public also created hundreds of dove- sized bird kites out of repurposed vinyl, which fly behind the "big bird" like a jet trail. Birds of a Feather was installed in the fall at the Des Moines International Airport. Along with our world- class line-up of professional and emerging artists, we continue to embrace the art of performing and brought in Mat Kerney on Friday and Eddie Money on Saturday. In addition, we partnered with Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity "Blitz Build. The home was hauled in for the Festival where people could contribute for a day, an hour or any amount of time to display their art of giving to others. The exterior of the house was successfully completed and hauled off-site Sunday for an area Des Moines family to enjoy.


2016 packed in another great weekend of visual art, music, culinary art, film, performing arts and interacting arts. Athene USA sponsored a laser and LED light show and the popular 90s group Gin Blossoms and classic rock legends Grand Funk Railroad headlined the Hy-Vee Main Stage Friday and Saturday evening. In addition, the Acoustic Stage was introduced, which covered a wide range of music styles form folk and pop to blues and jazz. The Festival also welcomed BOOM ART!, an interactive mural project suspended 30 feet high from the all-new, all-electric MidAmerican Energy bucket truck. It was with great excitement that a new annual award named for the late G. David Hurd was revealed at the Preview Celebration for the 2016 Festival and local artist Larassa Kabel received the first-ever G. David Hurd Innovator in the Arts.


In 2017, Des Moines Arts Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary with the "20 Party," an evening to toast to the Festival's history. During the Festival, two performing acts captivated guests, eVenti Verticali's WANTED comedy aerial show and the Secret Walls smackdown art competition. The live music of Saint Motel and Sires on Friday night and Big Head Todd and the Monsters on Saturday night brought down the house along with local favorites The Maytags, Halfloves and GoodCat on the Hy-Vee Main Stage. The Acoustic Stage featuring Joe Purdy and The Pines. Guests also enjoyed the street theatre experience of Bill Robison and Fantastik Patrick in the Creative Zone. The year brought the second annual G. David Hurd Innovator in the Arts, which was given to Chaden Halfhill at the Preview Celebration which also unveiled Chris Vance as the 2017 Featured Artist. Vance also recreated his 2017 Commemorative Poster design as a mural on the side of the Ford and Garland building.


2018 was the best year yet for the Festival. The International Festivals and Events Association (IFEA) agreed, naming the Des Moines Arts Festival the best Festival in the world (in total, the Festival took home 27 awards at the annual awards ceremony). The live music of Sir Sly and the Spin Doctors headlined Friday and Saturday night, respectively, with Jukebox the Ghost opening on Friday night on the Hy-Vee Main Stage. As a special feature to the Festival, both nights will culminated with a spectacular laser show with an amazing convergence of light, music and sound. The Acoustic Stage featured Dan Tedesco, Joe and Vicki Price, Dusty Heart, Shaun Munday and others. Chris Dahlquist was named the 2018 Featured Artist and Bravo Greater Des Moines was the recipient of the G. David Hurd Innovator in the Arts.


The focus on community was evident in 2019. The Festival featured 177 professional visual artists, 400 student artists, grades K-12, and an abundance of hands-on activities. This included salsa dancing, solfege lessons and creating everything from paper bag puppets to using up-cycled t-shirts to create headbands, bracelets, and necklaces. The MidAmerican Energy Company's BOOM ART! Knotty Nail's self-guided string art lessons and Nationwide's enormous Photomosaic, all welcomed guests to share their art with the community. The Interactive Art Alley also made its debut, where professional chalk artist Kathleen Roling created a unique chalk drawing on the pavement and guests colored in local artist Jenna Brownlee's drawings on the street. For guests who preferred to watch art in action, exhibiting artists demonstrated their craft with 18 artist demonstrations and workshops.

The Interrobang Film Festival (IFF) celebrated the art of film with 54 curated screenings from nine different countries. New this year, all IFF award winners were IMDb verified, this means that the awards granted from IFF are acknowledged and accredited within the international film industry. Headliners The Strumbellas, The Mowgli's and The Family Stone were enjoyed by thousands of guests on the Hy-Vee Main Stage. The Roots Stage featured folk and Americana standouts Bo Ramsey and William Elliott Whitmore among others.


Plans were sidelined in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic and the organization focused on new opportunities. Artwork from the Student Art Exhibition was moved online and later into the Central Library where students and families were able to view the artwork in small groups. The Interrobang Film Festival was streamed online with Vimeo during the traditional Festival dates. The Festival's website and social media showcased artists, small businesses and non-profit organizations and rallied community support for these businesses. The organization launched A Seat at the Table, an online conversation to elevate diversity, culture and diversity in the arts, and Artist INC, a platform which offered professional development to creative entrepreneurs.


2021 proved that the comeback was stronger than the setback. The Festival site was re-organized to accommodate for social distancing, covid cases plummeted to a low and the community embraced the beloved Festival. The Festival welcomed back the 150 artists who had previously been invited for the 2020 Festival and programs like the Student Art Exhibition, Community Outreach Program, Emerging Iowa Artists and the Interrobang Film Festival. The Hy-Vee Main Stage featured lovelytheband and Here Come the Mummies while the Roots Stage welcomed Tommy Prine, song of legendary singer songwriter John Prine and Lilly Hiatt daughter of another legend, John Hiatt. Beyond the Festival, the organization expanded the A Seat at the Table program into a full season.

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