Seeing San Antonio in Iowa

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March 28, 2014 | 1:07 pm

By Patrick Muller

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On March 7, eight people brought their “bright ideas” on public visual arts to “Ignite Cedar Rapids” to make a “more vibrant, urban hometown” for the City of Five Seasons. I was disappointed I could not be in the audience. I was at The Alamo for a food event on my Supper Time plates.

I attended the Cedar Rapids event in spirit, however, because San Antonio is a town that has made public art a part of its circulatory and nervous systems.

Initially springing from an urban flood mitigation project, San Antonio’s River Walk has long served as a cultural focal point for economic development, local identity, and community cohesion. With a 1939 WPA grant, the network of pathways hit its first stride. The citizens of San Antonio, however, have been sharp in adding increased value to this 2.5-miles-long cultural treasure.

The first expansion of the River Walk north extended it 2.25 miles past museum complexes to make Museum Reach. A further, off-river delineation, 5 miles, now involves city parks, zoological and botanical gardens, a natural-history museum and another art museum. A 5-year-old and 8-mile extension south will be completed this spring, connecting downtown and The Alamo to the four other historical missions.

When all is said and done, the project will create a 15-miles-long, 2,000-acre stretch of public land for cultural and recreational use.

This (interurban) regional synergy is not alien to Iowa. Van Buren County (as well as the Amana Colonies) has made it its lifeblood. The 12 villages of this county form a “unique cluster of towns” and diffused business and cultural districts.

Last year on a visit to Van Buren County, I spent $159.72 in seven small businesses across six towns. Not much, one might think, until it is multiplied by the frequent carload or busload.

But it’s not just currency exchange that can reward regional synergy. Perspectives and ideas can be shared as well. Collaborations can build.

I pursue regional synergy in my art as well. In one project, I connect the towns of Wheatland, Bennett, Solon, Iowa City, Hills, Riverside, Kalona, and Washington.

This disparate connectivity, which appears useless and oxymoronic, I find quite germane and potent. It brings me back to San Antonio.

The nucleus of San Antonio’s cultural life formed in the 1920s. A natural history collector born in England put his Texas collection up for sale. A local schoolteacher born in Michigan spearheaded the fundraising drive to purchase the collection, which formed the core of a new combined natural history/art museum built on land donated by a descendant of a Canary Islands immigrant. The art museum later parted ways and eventually found a home in an abandoned (since renovated) brewery founded by an immigrant from the Grand Duchy of Hesse (Germany).

The county of Van Buren stringing 12 villages together to make a regional destination or my stringing eight communities together across four counties to make a tourism purpose still unfolding is not much different from San Antonio cobbling together a cultural life from the talents of unrelated outsiders from Michigan, England, Hesse and the Canary Islands.

Patrick Muller, of Hills, a native Iowan and a recipient of two Iowa Arts Council grants, has served on the Iowa Cultural Coalition board and currently serves on the Johnson County Historic Preservation Commission. Comments: patrickomuller@gmail.com

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