Editor’s note: Before all of our Power Breakfast events, we bring the panelists to the Business Record for a pre-event meeting on the topic and to banter through potential questions. We always leave that meeting wishing we could have invited our entire audience into the room with us to hear the informal discussion. So, we decided this year to host a series of what we are calling Power Roundtables, and invited members from a variety of industries to have a discussions about the trends, opportunities and challenges they are facing as we head into 2014. We recorded each conversation on video, which can be viewed on our website. Not only did we get a variety of story ideas for 2014 and beyond, but we also had our reporters pull out some key takeaways and observations from the discussion. For our second roundtable, we hope you enjoy this inside look at the efforts in the community to ensure that Des Moines and Iowa are a rich and vibrant place to live and work. 

- Chris Conetzkey, editor of the Business Record


What is culture?

It’s a hard word to define, and even so, the definition from person to person may vary. In fact the culture beat, which I am responsible for covering, was just added in 2011 and contains art, music, entertainment and tourism among a variety of other areas. My editor, Chris Conetzkey, said the Business Record management team made a conscious effort with the addition of the culture beat to make sure we were covering the business impact of those industries. 

I felt fortunate to engage in this lively, inspiring discussion with a group of cultural leaders from various organizations across the city.

Whether you choose to consume culture through live theater, art, music, sporting events or something else, it’s hard to argue that culture -- and the opportunities, education, and entertainment it brings to local residents -- is anything but alive and well in Greater Des Moines. And that’s good for businesses.

One conclusion is clear: Culture has a place at the table after making a name for itself among the things that draw both residents and visitors into our community. 

It has made strides, but there are still challenges the Greater Des Moines culture scene has to face.

“Culture is being elevated as a subject. There is so much momentum, which is why I think it’s ironic there’s still this stereotype,” said Mary Cownie, executive director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. “We don’t have mountains and oceans here, but it’s time to push this and brag about it so we can attract the next generation to live, work and play here.”

What types of challenges?

According to Jeff Chelesvig, president and CEO of Des Moines Performing Arts, one of the biggest challenges facing the cultural scene in Greater Des Moines is one it has faced for years.

“The biggest competition for cultural organizations is people staying at home,” he said. “As we get more sophisticated with our home theaters and what is offered to us online, the tendency of people is to stay home. To me, what that presents is a great opportunity to make sure we’re doing quality programming in a great environment, and that the fabric of what we offer people includes easy parking, great restaurants and more.”

Perception is key to both attracting and dissuading visitors from traveling to the Des Moines area. Tiffany Tauscheck, vice president of marketing and development for the Greater Des Moines Convention and Vistors Bureau, said that for those who have been here recently, the community is viewed as “hip, artful and full of vibe.” 

“Those that are here, see it. They understand it,” Tauscheck said.

However, there are still people out there who haven’t been to Des Moines in a while who call our community an “ag town.” They use words to describe Des Moines including “small,” “vanilla” and “boring.”

But Tauscheck, who said she sees busloads of people from the around the globe visiting Des Moines, is confident the buzz is spreading.

“It’s working,” she said. “It comes down to collaboration, and we’re on the right track.”

Key takeaways

MD Isley 
Former executive director of Bravo Greater Des Moines, dean of DMACC business and information technology department, 
Des Moines Area Community College

“The arts have a place at the table at a higher level, and with a stronger voice, than I believe they’ve ever had before. That didn’t just happen – it happened because of organizations who were present to make sure decision makers understood there is value to arts and culture. … We as a community need to do a better job and find a way to make sure that not only the outsiders know what we have and the value of it, but also our residents, our business people, and our politicians. We need to make sure they have a good solid understanding and the facts to back it up to make sure they can value and support us the way we should be supported.”

Tiffany Tauscheck
Vice president of marketing and development, 
Greater Des Moines Convention & Vistors Bureau

“From a CVB perspective, we are very proud of how far we’ve come in the last few years, but we look forward to where we’re going. This track we’re on with Capital Crossroads, the cultural organizations, these meetings we’ve had where we really strategize and think about how we’re going to target those who are interested in arts and culture – all of these pieces, while somewhat tactical, will contribute to this overall strategy to reach potential visitors to get them into our city so they can experience our arts and culture and all the other amenities our city has to offer. We’re very encouraged and look forward to 2014 and what it will bring.”

Mary Cownie
Executive director, 
Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

“I think culture in Greater Des Moines and Iowa has so much more momentum than it did. It’s underappreciated, but we’re making strides. We’re starting to get noticed and be included. We are starting to inject ourselves where we should have been all along, and I think we will start to be more noticed in the next year. … I think there is a balance we haven’t gotten right quite yet. We can be proud of our agricultural heritage, but where is the balance to ensure we’re not viewed as not being culturally savvy? Let’s hang our hat on Grant Wood. That is an example of combining the two – history and art with the connection to Iowa. There can be that blend, and it’s not pretending to be something we’re not. 
Iowans are modest, and we 
need to take advantage of our bragging rights. ”

Jeff Chelesvig 
President and CEO,
Des Moines Performing Arts

“We need to continually work toward making sure everything we do is high quality. We ought to be able to sell that. To me, if there is something we should be aspiring to, it’s making sure we do quality work because that’s really what sells. … Downtown is an incredible place. We have hundreds of visitors from out of town each year who are performers. They are always so impressed and so amazed because they have this vision of what Des Moines is, but most of them get to stay downtown and (experience it). They love all of those things, and I think that is something to celebrate.”

Collaboration is key

Chelesvig took the conversation back to 1997 when the Des Moines Civic Center brought the Broadway play “The Phantom of the Opera” to its stage. He was told by leaders of other organizations that his efforts to bring better programming to the Civic Center would “put them out of business.”

But once “Phantom” left, Chelesvig went to those same people and asked them how their seasons went.

“It was their best year ever,” he said. “What we find is if you can get someone to go to a performance and they have a good experience, that will intrigue them enough to look at something else.”

MD Isley, the former director of Bravo Greater Des Moines and current dean of Des Moines Area Community College’s school of business and information technology, still considers himself an engaged cultural consumer. He said the willingness to collaborate has improved over the years. He thinks it could be attributed to initiatives like the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Capital Crossroads visioning plan, which includes culture as one of the 11 capitals, or focus areas. 

“It’s been a great exercise in culture,” said Cownie, who co-chairs the cultural capital. “It’s forced us all to come together and identify what the needs are and how to best move forward.”

Education is important

Everyone participating in the conversation agreed that arts and culture are key components to a child’s education, and finding ways to further insert them into the curriculum is something that should be continually explored.

According to Chelesvig, almost all major cultural institutions in Greater Des Moines have education initiatives. Des Moines Performing Arts alone services 75,000 learners each year, 50,000 of whom are children.

Cownie believes the push to encourage arts in Iowa’s education curriculum could be done by adding a specific arts component to the state’s STEM initiative.

“It would send a great message,” she said. “I think people have a hard time understanding what culture means. It can often seem elitist. Something as simple as (STEM) going to STEAM helps elevate the arts as critical to learning.”

Exposure is critical

Lack of advocacy group
According to Cownie, advocacy is one of the biggest challenges faced by culture in the state. It also is one of the hardest for which to find a solution. Although there is a group called the Iowa Cultural Coalition that participates in state legislative sessions, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs wants to get the right people at the table to ensure that cultural institutions and organizations get the marketing and advocacy they deserve. “If we could solve that problem, we’d be very happy people,” Cownie said.

Cultural smartphone app
The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs is in the process of rolling out a smartphone app that will have a database populated with cultural points from across the state.  Cownie said it has been called “the Yelp of culture”, and will allow anyone to access places or items of interest, including museums, public art, historical sites and more from across the state. “We’re doing it in hopes it will push people toward wanting to stay in Iowa.” Cownie said. The app is scheduled to launch this month.

CVB Testing Catch D.M.
A year into its new Catch Des Moines look and messaging, Tauscheck said the Convention and Visitors Bureau will start testing the marketing campaign in the next year to make sure it is working. “From an analytic standpoint, it certainly is cutting through,” Tauscheck said. “We just need to go through and do a little more research.”

Golden nest for culture
When it comes to exposing Iowans to culture, Isley believes the earlier, the better. We need to amplify and celebrate and take advantage of every opportunity to help locals and nonlocals understand what we have here,” Isley said. “We are in the middle of a golden nest of arts right here. If I had a child, rather than take them to a mall or movie, I would have a schedule and would be exposing my children to every venue we have. The great artists, musicians, actors and engineers were born two years ago or two years from now. What better place to manifest that desire or generate that spark than right here 
in Des Moines?