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Avant-Garde Meets Iowa Stubborn
What happens when a contemporary museum proposes progressive art in a picturesque community park?
By Mary Kay Wilcox

Des Moines, Iowa, may seem an unlikely place to find avant-garde art in a public park. A choice location for McDonald’s and other corporations testing new product lines, Des Moines is considered stereotypically mainstream. Nonetheless, the city-owned Greenwood Park, a 147-acre picturesque landscape of tree-covered rolling hills, houses Double Site by Mary Miss, Andy Goldsworthy’s Three Cairns, and Standing Stones by Richard Serra, best known for his controversial sculpture Tilted Arc, ultimately removed from the Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan after intense public debate.

Greenwood Park:
Photo by Mary Kay Wilcox

In a city without a tradition of new or progressive art in its public parks, how did these installations come to exist? The most visible public sculpture in Des Moines prior to Greenwood Park’s art was Claes Oldenburg’s 58-foot tall, green-painted steel Crusoe Umbrella. The whimsy of Oldenburg’s pop art was palatable to the community, and the new downtown plaza that housed it was a de facto improvement over the gasoline station that used to be there. There was no public debate. But what kind of dialogue occurs in the community when the art being considered is avant-garde and its proposed location is a pastoral park?

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