The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Downtown District finds an art director

The Daily Iowan; Photos by Hieu
Thomas Agran, Iowa City’s Downtown District’s new Arts Director, sits on a bench which he painted in the Pedestrian Mall on Monday, July 25 2017. Agran earned his BA in Studio Art from Grinnell College and his Masters of Fine Arts in painting from Indiana University. Being an artist and a director, he said he wants to help create opportunities for artists. (Hieu Nguyen/The Daily Iowan)

Five years after its founding, the Iowa City Downtown District continues to grow with the addition of a part-time arts director, Thomas Agran.

Agran received a bachelor’s degree in studio art from Grinnell College, then got an M.F.A. in painting from Indiana University. After earning the degrees, Agran and his wife moved to Iowa City. His first piece of public art was a bench downtown for the city’s benchmark program.

One of Agran’s hopes it to strike a healthy balance between being an artist and being a director.

“It’s a part-time job, so I can keep doing my own work,” he said. “… It’s exciting to make these new opportunities happen for other artists. It’s an exciting challenge.”

In addition to the benchmark program, one of Agars’ main goals is to provide more opportunities for local artists. Being an artist himself, he understands the struggles of starting.

“We want to create a rich environment for artists to grow,” he said. “A big achievement for downtown would be creating a community art center. Once I got the job, people immediately started writing me to tackle this project.”

Part of providing more opportunities for local artists involves ensuring more of those opportunities are paid ones, Agran said.

“In order to get public-art commissions, you have to have a public-arts portfolio,” he said. “It’s difficult to get started, and I want to help these artists. Everyone deserves these opportunities, and I want to help create these.”

The beautification leads to an increased traffic flow, which correlates with more customers for local businesses, said Nancy Bird, the executive director of the Downtown District, at the June 29 State of Downtown meeting.

“We want to change the way-finding signs of the downtown,” she said. “If it looks better, it will increase traffic.”

RELATED: Downtown District eyes shining future

Officially, according to the Downtown District’s website, its goal is to “provide a leadership directive that advocates for the district mission and serves as a mechanism to more efficiently implement district-wide marketing, programs, events, and projects that support vitality for the benefit of all the businesses within it, the University of Iowa, community members, and the region at large.”

The district laid out its goals, along with its roadblocks, in its annual strategic plan. The document outlined its hopes for increased creative signage, more public murals, and the beautification of the downtown’s alleyways.

Even for the UI — an institution often considered to be deeply intertwined with the city itself — the health of the Downtown District is significant, said David Kieft, a UI financial administrator, during the State of Downtown meeting.

“A healthy downtown is incredibly important for student success, faculty, and staff,” he said. “It’s all about attracting people who want to move to the downtown. Having a very healthy and vibrant area makes people want to move here.”

RELATED: Temporary art installation heads to Pedestrian Mall

Through art, Agran hopes to push forward the city’s progress in making the Downtown District vibrant. But there are roadblocks, one of the largest being funding. Commissioning public art is not easy with the Downtown District’s limited budget, Agran said.

Despite this barrier, he said, he is optimistic about the future of artwork downtown and its effect on the community.

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About the Contributor
James Geerdes
James Geerdes, Design Editor
Email: [email protected] James is a junior studying business analytics and journalism. He is currently the design editor and is interested in interactive graphics and UX design. Since joining his freshman year, he has been a sports reporter, designer, and digital producer for The Daily Iowan.