Summer of the Arts director balances passion for arts, love for family


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Lisa Barnes’ hard working heart pumps her passion for the arts, and always has.

Her appreciation for art came early in her life, when she watched her mother dabble in the arts.

“Mom wanted to be an art teacher, but her mom wouldn’t let her, so she was always taking classes,” said Barnes, who is now the executive director of Iowa City’s extensive Summer of the Arts program.

On Monday, she pointed out a ceramic figure from the Iowa City Arts Festival, her favorite of the non-for-profit’s events. The egg-shaped work had a colorful dragon crawling up the crack that matched others scattered on top of her office shelves.

Her parents divorced when she was 7, Barnes watched her mother work two jobs. Her brother and sister both had jobs at age 14, and she started teaching tumbling in seventh grade so she could pay for her own dance classes.

And the 51-year-old hasn’t slowed down since.

Before landing a job that requires both hard work and a passion for the arts, Barnes held a number of positions that led her to where she is now.

With a University of Iowa journalism degree, she first moved back to her hometown of Des Moines and worked for an association management company. But in just three years, she knew she belonged in Iowa City.

After holding several different jobs — including starting up her own independent meeting planning business and serving as executive director of the Downtown Association — Barnes got the job with the Summer of the Arts in 2009.

Her impressive résumé doesn’t stop there. The mother of two has led Girl Scout troops, coached soccer teams, and been the assistant cheerleading coach for the past three years at West High, where she has coached daughter Miranda, 18, and son Jason, 15.

But in addition to parenting, organizing arts programming keeps her busy. Barnes said during the weekend of the Iowa City Jazz Festival, she worked 55 hours in three days.

“You don’t think about it, you just keep going, then you crash,” Barnes said.

Though most of the events occur during the summer, her role as executive director is year-round.

“We have meetings in September, and then we hit the ground running with sponsorships,” Barnes said.

With a small staff of only two and half employees, the group has seven interns working during the summer to help plan and manage the events.

Shane Schemmel, the assistant executive director and the only other full-time staff member, said their skills are complementary.

“Because we’ve known each other for so long, we make a good team,” Schemmel said. “It’s easy to bounce ideas off one another.”

UI senior Leslie Chapin, an intern, said Barnes leads by example and is cool under pressure, especially when something goes wrong during an event.

“It may be insignificant to the 50,000 people enjoying the festival, but it means the world to you,” she said. “I mean, there have been tears, and that’s when Shane and Lisa step in as a maternal figure and say it’s OK.”

The West High cheerleaders call her “Momma Barnes” for a reason.

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