Department of Cultural Affairs hears from Charles City

Stewart Dalton, Jaqueline Davidson and Ann Schneckloth of the Charles City Arts Council discuss arts and culture in Charles City at community conversation conducted by members of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs at the Charles City Public Library on Monday. (Press photo by James Grob.)
Stewart Dalton, Jaqueline Davidson and Ann Schneckloth of the Charles City Arts Council discuss arts and culture in Charles City at a community conversation conducted by members of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs at the Charles City Public Library on Monday. (Press photo by James Grob.)
By James Grob,

Residents from Charles City and elsewhere took the opportunity to provide comments and suggestions to three Iowa state departments at what was called a “community conversation” about history, culture, the arts and economic development on Monday.

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) held the meeting at the Charles City Library. Representatives of the three divisions of the DCA — the Iowa Arts Council, the State Historical Society of Iowa and Produce Iowa (the office of film and media production) — discussed their efforts to “make Iowa a more culturally vibrant place to live, work and play.”

About 40 people turned out for the forum, most from Charles City, but also from area communities as far as Mason City and Waukon.

Chris Kramer, acting director of Iowa DCA, said she was pleased and impressed with the turnout in Charles City.

“They’re very interested in keeping arts and culture alive,” she said. “Public officials and business owners understand that they need to keep their communities vibrant in order to hire and keep employees happy and attract people to their community.

“I think it’s a reminder as a state agency that we need to get out to all of our communities and listen to what’s going on in their local area,” she added.

The Iowa DCA lists its priorities as partnerships, storytelling, technology, internal collaboration and metrics.

Its strategic goals are preserving and promoting Iowa’s collective heritage; cultivating creativity, participation and learning in the arts; engaging diverse statewide audiences through education initiatives and public programs; providing tools, resources and knowledge to promote networking and collaboration; and investing in people and projects that foster economic growth and enhance cultural identity in local communities.

“I think we heard today about how communities want to stay connected and continue to hear information, both from us and also to help get the word out about what’s going on in their own community,” Kramer said, adding that they are also interested in better connections with available resources and grant funding.

Kramer said that the grassroots ideas presented at the discussion will go a long way toward the development of DCA strategic goals.

“There were a lot of great ideas that folks here have. If we can find ways to better connect people in this community, they can get new projects started,” Kramer said.

“Overall, we just want to continue to help with that work force development. Developing skills for the future is really important. A lot of people probably don’t realize that there are 25,000 people in Iowa who work in arts and culture. Not only that, when you expand that to creative businesses — galleries, graphics, architecture — there are more than 72,000 people in Iowa working in a creative industry.”

Kramer told the crowd that the DCA wants to address Charles City’s priorities, from work force development to the quality of life in Iowa, as it relates to the arts, history and historic preservation.

Charles City was one of six sites chosen for the forum. Similar conversations will be held in Burlington and Washington on July 12, in Malvern on July 24, and in Storm Lake and Perry on July 26.

Linda Wastyn, president of Wastyn and Associates, a consulting firm out of the Quad Cities, facilitated the discussion.

She said the discussions are intended to be open-ended, conversational and informal, and that the Iowa DCA wants to be seen as progressive, innovative and culturally vibrant.

Those present conferred in a large-group type forum for half the meeting, then broke off into separate groups, depending upon which area of the DCA they wanted to discuss in more detail.

It was mentioned at the large group meeting that one of the problems was that cultural and historical societies are aging — the average age of people involved with these organizations throughout Iowa is in the 70s, and their membership has dwindled. Many expressed a need to revitalize these groups with younger adults.

Some at the forum said there were misconceptions about people age 20-45. It is often assumed that they aren’t interested, but they are, they just need to be engaged, and groups need to find ways to get them involved.

“There’s a really important opportunity now for the department to try to figure out how to bring in younger adults at the local level, so that the state can be revitalized,” said Cheryl Erb of Charles City. “Teach communities how to reach out.”

Charles City Mayor Dean Andrews encouraged the DCA to promote cultural programs to youth and to “get young people involved,” at the elementary and middle school level.

Others suggested a systematic social media campaign could be utilized to help do just that.

A few at the meeting suggested getting educators involved, by perhaps channeling some funding into special projects for teachers.

Erb suggested that she wanted to find ways to make the community more aware of Charles City’s rich history. Others agreed that Charles City needed to raise public awareness and public advocacy, to better promote local and statewide support for the arts.

Longtime Charles City artist Jean Semelhack talked about the need for better communication within the community.

“We have several different small groups in Charles City represented here. We need to let the community first know what we have to offer,” Semelhack said. “For some reason, many people in this town don’t know about all of the wonderful things that are going on. I think you start there, and then perhaps when they get familiar with everything, then they can tell others and it can spread.

“You have to toot your own horn first,” she said. “Everyone here is capable of doing that.”

Many of the Charles City residents at the meeting pointed to the success of the recent Stony Point Players production of “The Wizard of Oz” as something the community can build on. It was mentioned that the production had a cast of more than 100, and many of those were children. The project involved kids and young adults, it made a point to get the community involved, and it engaged many local businesses that previously were not engaged in the arts.

There was also a call for the DCA to help with better coordination between area communities. It was pointed out that regional wine tours have been successful; so might regional art and culture tours.

“It goes back to regional cooperation,” said Mark Wicks, Charles City community development director. “All these towns — Charles City, Clear Lake, Mason City — they have great historical societies and places to stop. If that’s promoted statewide, that increases awareness to a greater population.”