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Pappajohn Sculpture Park – Des Moines' Art Mecca

by Michael Mackie

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A breathtaking view of the Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Foreground sculpture by Keith Haring / photo by Mindy Myers
A breathtaking view of the Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Foreground sculpture by Keith Haring / photo by Mindy Myers


The capital city of Des Moines, Iowa is widely known for a couple things … the incomparable Iowa State Fair and for being a headquarters to countless financial/insurance corporations.

But did you know Des Moines has become a Mecca for art sculptures? ‘Tis true. Just ask the 40,000+ annual visitors who make a pilgrimage to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park located smack dab in the heart of Downtown Des Moines’ urban grid.

The 4.4-acre park has been open since 2009 when art aficionados John and Mary Pappajohn donated a dazzling array of 28 unique sculptures to the Des Moines Art Center from their prolific collection.  “People love it and are always excited to hear of a new work added to the collection – or an event in the park,” said Christine Doolittle, Director of Marketing and Public Relations at the Des Moines Art Center.


Back of a Snowman (White) and Back of a Snowman (Black) by Gary Hume / photo by Mindy Myers Back of a Snowman (White) and Back of a Snowman (Black) by Gary Hume / photo by Mindy Myers


The larger-than-life sculptures range from quirky to sublime to colorfully charming. The perfectly manicured landscaping throughout the park makes it the perfect respite for tourists … and photographers. 


T8 by Mark di Suvero / photo by Mindy Myers
T8 by Mark di Suvero / photo by Mindy Myers


“There’s really not a bad shot down here,” said stalwart Des Moines photographer, Mindy Myers. “It’s visual overload – so many surreal angles, textures and colors. Plus, the outdoor backdrop makes everything that much more lush.”

On any given day, you’ll find multiple groups out traipsing around … simultaneously looking at art and listening to their phones. A built-in walking tour gives park-goers the chance to learn about each piece of art simply by dialing in to a podcast. It’s an opportunity to get the back-story on the various pieces and, of course, the artists. 


Michael Mackie explores the Pappajohn Sculpture Art Park / Photo by Mindy Myers Michael Mackie explores the Pappajohn Sculpture Art Park / Photo by Mindy Myers


Wanting something a little more highbrow? Specialized guided tours are also available April 1 – October 31st.  The guided tours have become quite popular – with “more than 6,000 adults and children” visiting each year, according to Doolittle.  And because the park is centrally located, it’s not uncommon to see school kids, businessmen, hipsters and power-walkers commiserating and appreciating Des Moines’ latest claim to fame.  

But that wasn’t always the case.

“Before the sculpture park, the area was just worn out,” said Myers. “While I wouldn’t call it urban blight, I wouldn’t exactly call it welcoming.” Now the area is sitting pretty (figuratively and literally) with nearly $40 million worth of donated artwork sprinkled throughout the grounds. Grassy knolls and moon-shaped cutaways welcome the visitors to the contemporary displays. Two NY architects Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas helped design the rolling, undulating lawn that spotlights the art’s nuances.  


One of the two bronze cast horse sculptures by Deborah Butterfield at the sculpture park / photo by Mindy Myers One of the two bronze cast horse sculptures by Deborah Butterfield at the sculpture park / photo by Mindy Myers


“I see families picnicking, children rolling down the hills, couples strolling through, people reading and people engaging in the work,” said Doolittle. “The fact that it has free admission, is centrally located, and has no barriers – like fences, for instance – makes it completely accessible to all.”

Turns out, the park was just the beginning of breathing life in to the area.  “The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park has transformed downtown and created a center,” said Des Moines Parks and Rec’s Jennifer Fletcher. “Companies have relocated back to downtown because of the park.”

What’s the most popular piece, you ask?


Nomade by Jaume Plensa / photo by Mindy Myers Nomade by Jaume Plensa / photo by Mindy Myers


“I am going to go with the Nomade,” said Fletcher. The Des Moines Register described the behemoth, loosely arranged structure by sculptor Jaume Plensa like this: “Nomade is made of randomly arranged stainless steel letters, painted white and arranged in the shape of a person sitting with knees drawn up to the chest.” (A similar one can be found in the exotic port of Antibes. It’s described as a “man of letters looking over the Mediterranean”.) “The city has largely embraced it as one of the iconic images of Des Moines,” Doolittle agreed.

So come one and come all to this “cultural center of quiet contemplation” – especially if you’re a who’s-who looking for some Zen. “Considering the sculptures are in Gateway Park, every visitor to Des Moines will experience the park in some way, including entertainers and politicians,” said Doolittle. “For example, Hillary and Bill Clinton held a rally at the capital Saturday with Katy Perry and they must have, at the very least, driven by.”  

Artists on display: Keith Haring, Louise Bourgeois, Ugo Rondinone, Richard Serra, Anthony Caro, Yoshitomo Nara, Barry Flanagan, Gary Hume, Mark di Suvero, Deborah Butterfield, Willem de Kooning and Jaume Plensa just to name a few.

Other nearby Fave Places you may want to check out: 

Ritual Café – 1301 Locust St #D: For Des Moines, it doesn’t get much more hippie-friendly than this nearby coffee shop. Open for over a decade, this place prides itself on its vegetarian food and killer smoothies. Grab yourself a chai or a bit of nosh and turn your visit to the Sculpture Park into a picnic. The café is closed on Sundays. 

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West End Architectural Salvage – 22 9th Street: Everything old is new, urban and trendy again at this four-story shoppe that’s been featured repeatedly on HGTV. Here you’ll find goods and antiques salvaged (natch!) from all over the world.  Oh – and their coffee ain’t bad either. 

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About the photographer: 

Mindy Myers studied photography and art at the University of California Santa Barbara before finishing her journalism degree at Drake University, where her photography won several national awards. Her eclectic education and experience have resulted in a signature style of photo documentary portraiture that distinguishes all of her work. Mindy shoots out of downtown Des Moines' Catchlight Studios and manages her business at her home where she lives with her husband, four daughters and assorted animals.

Instagram: @mindymyersphoto

FB: mindymyersphotography



John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park: 1330 Grand Avenue
Des Moines, Iowa 50309

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Nov 3, 2015 7:58:00 AM