Art is for everyone: Des Moines Speaks

Photos: Des Moines Art Center

When Karen Downing, Special Projects Coordinator at CultureALL, visited the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, she was imoressed and intrigued by a feature she had not seen before. A collection of Indigenous pieces included a recorded reflection by a contemporary Indigenous person, accessible by QR code. She recognized the potential to incorporate this idea and marry the mission and resources CultureALL has to offer with the renowned permanent collection at the Des Moines Art Center.

“When I talked to the Joslyn Art Museum about using their idea, they said, ‘Of course! We found it somewhere else,’” Downing said.

The Des Moines Art Center enthusiastically supported the project. “It made so much sense to partner with them, as the Des Moines Art Center is already driven to expand the voices inside the museum,” said Downing.  

Participants included CultureALL Ambassadors and Open Books: Abe Goldstien, Shane McQuillan, Emmett Phillips, Anthony Stevens, JJ Kapur, Christina Fernandez-Morrow, Mamta Israni, Mohammad Ghnem, Pragnya Yogesh, Josie Shaw, and Sue Hudson, along with Sadagat Aliyeva, Kiranmai Talasila, and Mary Gottschalk.

Before the project, one of the participants, JJ Kapur, was feeling a little apprehensive. “I didn’t think I’d have anything to say about the art,” he said.

To prepare the participants, Mia Buch, Museum Educator at the Des Moines Art Center, conducted a 2-hour workshop with them. The first hour was an observational tour throughout the museum. Participants had a notepad and pen and were given time and space to keep track of their thoughts, feelings, and curiosities about various pieces. 

“Her plan was to make us comfortable talking about art,” said Kapur. “In fact, I was blown away by the fact that one piece of art could have so many diverse reactions.” For instance, JJ Kapur responded to one piece with bullet points. Another participant, Emmett Phillips, wrote a spoken word piece. Every participant brought different ways of responding and different life experiences.

One art piece was a collection of photographs. The artist had taken a photo of herself crying every day for a year. The participants talked about how sad it made them feel – one participant responded that the piece reminded her of the loneliness of moving to America as a refugee. One participant, however, thought it felt superficial, contrived. Buch explained to them that, actually, that was closest to the intent of the artist.

After the workshop, participants met with Downing to get the written portion of their responses (whether a poem, song, or prose) to a final draft. Finally, they met with Mia, who recorded their responses.

“The Des Moines Art Center balanced honoring individual’s unique perspectives, while encouraging participants to dig deeper into reflecting on art,” shared Downing.

Within the first week, QR codes were accessed 109 times! DSM Speaks recordings will be on view as long as the works they are responding to are on view.

The Des Moines Art Center explained the purpose of the project:

The art works within the permanent collection at the Des Moines Art Center do not only belong to the museum. As a free and accessible arts institution, authority and interpretation belong to all who experience these works. Our community is encouraged to see this collection as theirs, and in fostering this, our DES MOINES SPEAKS program has invited citizens of our city to share their voices and visions alongside the artworks that inspire them.

DES MOINES SPEAKS are 90 – 160 second audio reflections on artwork in our permanent collection, written and voiced by diverse members of our community. Contributors to this program were selected in partnership with CultureALL and the Des Moines Art Center. To listen, simply scan the QR codes, identified with the DES MOINES SPEAKS logo included on the artworks’ label, with the camera of your cell phone. We hope by elevating these diverse ways of seeing, we can encourage all visitors to connect more deeply and to see themselves and their identities within our walls.

The Des Moines Art Center is open Saturdays and Sundays from 10am - 4pm, closed on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 11am - 4pm, and Thursdays and Fridays from 11am - 7pm.

CultureALL believes that sharing the cultural richness of our community with others will elevate our society and the quality of life for all.