Cleary: Take a seat: Enjoy the city

BY SAM CLEARY | APRIL 19, 2012 6:30 AM

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This is Hawkeye Country, undoubtedly.But it's easy to forget that aside from being a football mecca and an infamous epicenter of Big Ten bar culture, Iowa City is a worldly hotbed of cultural and artistic activity.

A newly proposed project called the BenchMarks Public Art Project would designate four Iowa City park benches to be painted by local artists. City staffers have asked City Council to approve guidelines for the project, so that artists might complete their work in time for the U.S. Olympic wrestling trials, scheduled for this weekend.

For a city that's been drowning in the incessant media murmur of bar ordinances and cheap, college-sports drama for the past two years, it's these little things that seem to catch my attention: the quaint things; the important things; reminders of the sometimes shy reality that we live in a town with an internationally famous literary scene, a diverse population with a reputation for enlightenment and intellect, and a vibrant artistic subculture.

Iowa City has a reputation for a lot more than beer and sports. It is the world's third (and only American) UNESCO City of Literature, making it a significant part of the Creative Cities Network. The city is home to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Playwrights' Workshop, and the nation's leading Nonfiction Writing Program. Our International Writing Program was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976. Each year, Summer of the Arts brings in renowned artists and musicians for a showcase of the city's art culture.

Amid the chaotic pleasures of our nationally ranked party scene, our notoriously rowdy tailgates, and our first-class nightlife, there is a wealthy and prominent artistic and cultural underground. The problem is, we don't advertise it; The city's reputation is only maintained by the humble efforts of its inhabitants.

Like I said, it's the small things that count: It's not the nature of an art scene to be controlling, commercialistic, or in-your-face. But it's the subtle initiatives — downtown pianos readily available for public musicians; large statues of classic novels in honor of the city's literary reputation. The BenchMarks project is just another modest reminder of just how much this city has to offer.

So I applaud the seemingly modest efforts of the BenchMarks project. And in a city with such a rich artistic culture, so should we all.

The City Council should support wholeheartedly the organization's enthusiasm and should continue to encourage initiatives similar to it. If the first four benches generate attention, the BenchMarks program's intention is to issue a formal call to local artists in order to expand its efforts throughout the city by painting around 20 benches.

This is a call to arms for those of us who came to this school for a taste of something other than the sweat that hangs heavy in the air at Union on a Friday night; for those of us who prefer Jeff Tweedy to Big Sean; for those of us who don't react to the playing of a Ped Mall piano by spouting an obscenity.

In Hawkeye Country, it's often the big wins and subsequent celebrations that make us feel as if we're on top of the world. But taking a step back allows us to see that in a more worldly scope, the things that distinguish our city are those that few people seem to notice.

Promote your local artists, promote your school, promote your city — it's our reputation as well.

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