Can The Arts Help Preserve A Small Iowa Town?

Aug 29, 2019

The artist Rose Frantzen has a vision for her hometown of Maquoketa in Eastern Iowa. She sees a place with art at its core.

“We would be, like, an arts district, where you would come and see five, six, seven, eight galleries,” she says from the Old City Hall Gallery she owns with her husband and fellow artist Chuck Morris.

Frantzen is doing her part to make Maquoketa an art getaway. Her "Portraits of Maquoketa" project brought international attention to the town of 6,000 halfway between Dubuque and the Quad Cities. In fact, her mere presence in town inspired retired pharmacist Bob Osterhaus to open the Maquoketa Art Experience on Main Street.

“Our mission statement is basically to provide an opportunity for our citizens to look, see and create art," he says. "And to bring art into the everyday lives of all our citizens who are interested.”

People in Maquoketa point to the Art Experience as the centerpiece of a downtown revitalization. In January 2008, a massive fire destroyed five buildings. The scar was still visible when Jessica Kean and her husband were considering a move to Maquoketa. The Quad Cities native now sits on the Maquoketa City Council.

“I didn’t realize at the time how monumental that was to this place, what an impact it had on the psyche of this community,” she says while in the Art Experience near her two children. She's just picked up her daughter from an art class.

A wood sculpture built to play on sunlight and shadows sits in downtown Maquoketa on a green space that was cleared after a fire in 2008.
Credit Lindsey Moon / IPR

The site of the devastation is now a green space where outdoor concerts play during warm-weather months. A large wooden sculpture designed by a Maquoketa native fills part of the plot. Directly across the street is a renovated appliance warehouse now home to Mac’s Wine Cellar. Owner Sue Mayberry is adding to Maquoketa’s cultural scene by presenting local musicians in the Cellar on weekends.

“We have so many musicians wanting to play here," she says, "But I really don’t have enough Fridays and Saturdays to accommodate all of them.”

Upstairs from the Mac's Wine Cellar is an antique shop and appliance store she also co-owns with her husband, Jim.

Maquoketa has advantages many small Iowa towns do not. For a start, it’s located in a beautiful part of the state. The nearby Maquoketa Caves draw thousands of tourists. The concert venue Codfish Hollow north of town pulls in big-name acts. One of the state’s last drive-in movie theaters is south on Highway 61. A senior adviser with the Jackson County Economic Alliance, Dave Heiar, senses an improved mood around town.

“In the last six years I’ve seen a whole different attitude and mentality,” he says from his office across the street from the Maquoketa Art Experience.

Maquoketa does share a few of the struggles of similarly sized Iowa towns. There are still far too many empty storefronts along the main drag through town. The population has remained stagnant for decades. Chiropractor Don Schwenker is in his eighth year as mayor.

“Growing is a sign of a healthy economy and an indicator of how your community is doing," he says. "So even though we haven’t regressed, we haven’t grown, and that’s the next step we have to take.”

A small town atmosphere is exactly what some in Maquoketa crave. Leslie Jacobsen’s family left town 

Inside the Maquoketa Art Experience, paintings and photographs by Iowa based and Midwestern artists line the walls. There are also handmade coasters, jewelry and other mixed media art displayed for sale.
Credit Lindsey Moon / IPR

when she was in sixth grade. She stayed away 35 years. She’ll soon direct a production of Thornton Wilder's “Our Town” for the community theater.

“I’ve found what I think is my dream house," she says from the stage of Peace Pipe Players, where she is president of the board. "I’ve kind of established a bunch of things I want to be involved with, and I’m pretty happy.” She lived in Pennsylvania and New Jersey before returning to Maquoketa.

When Ted Strait retired from IBM on the East Coast, he researched small Iowa towns and landed on Maquoketa.

“It’s been quite an adventure," he says. "I’ve never regretted moving here. It’s been the best place in the world to retire to.”

And as for Rose Frantzen’s dream of Maquoketa becoming a district populated by artisans, the buzz around town is a potter from Dubuque is relocating to Maquoketa. 

Rose Frantzen and Chuck Morris stand in the foyer of their art gallery in Maquoketa.
Credit Lindsey Moon / IPR

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