BenchMarks wraps up second public art chapter


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A typewriter spilling over letters of the alphabet. The lone brush streaking a sea of vibrant colors. Or a still image of a man sprawled out reading a book.

To the casual passerby, these ideas, literally splattered across more than 100 freshly painted wood benches in the heart of Iowa City, are simply art.

But to a number of downtown business owners, community artists, and city leaders, they stand as a testament to on-going community economic-development efforts and broader beautification plans.

BenchMarks, the three-year public-art program born in 2012 that brought about the painting of nearly 80 downtown benches, officially wrapped up its second chapter Thursday with the official showcasing of more than 100 refreshed seats.

The project works in conjunction with the city of Iowa City and the Iowa City-based Reclaiming Roots volunteer organization. A $10,000 grant will be given annually. 

A series of public workshops, including those involving the Iowa Youth Writing Project, elementary-school students, and the local homeless population brought forth this year’s designs by professionally commissioned artists.

Taking to the soon-to-open “Project Room” Steven Vail Fine Arts gallery in the newly renovated Packing & Provision Co. Building, 118 E. College St., leaders say the initiative is just the beginning of a series of development changes.

Downtown District Executive Director Nancy Bird and operations director Betsey Potter, said the University of Iowa Community Credit Union program has been a strong backer of future art endeavors.

“As a downtown, we need to always shake it up and find something new,” Bird said, and that is has been a part of the overarching Community Gallery Program that put forth the Tree Huggers and Public Pianos programs.

Potter said it demonstrates one of a series of “growing up” trends of not only the local core but among larger metropolitan areas across the country. Sacramento, Calif., and Cedar Rapids have approached the district about implementing similar projects, she said.

BenchMarks was awarded a Merit Award for delivering excellence in downtown management from the International Downtown Association at its annual conference in Minneapolis on Sept. 28, 2012.

John Engelbrecht, Public Space One director and this year’s creative head for BenchMarks 2.0, said this year’s round was influenced by New York’s Central Park’s “The Gates” Christo and Jeanne Claude project, with the goal to create a more cohesive layout when deciding on four distinctive “design zones.”

In all, the current round includes 35 sea foam, orange, yellow, and green benches.

“If you place things in the right way and conceptualize in the right way, anything can be art,” Engelbrecht said.

Downtown resident Veronica Tessler, who owns Yotopia Frozen Yogurt, 132 S. Clinton St, said the program has actually aided in her business’s bottom line, because customers constantly ask her about the benches.

She said increased interest in private-public partnerships similar to those found between the UI and the local business community will bring even more public art initiatives downtown.

“There’s been this huge metropolitan movement across the U.S., and BenchMarks is really Iowa City’s own twist,” she said.

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