From the coasts to the Corn Belt: These artists traded big cities for Des Moines — and they're thriving
Bryan and Sarah Vanderpool, the husband-and-wife duo of folk band The Well Pennies, found a thriving arts scene in Des Moines, Iowa. The Des Moines Register
Sarah and Bryan Vanderpool met in Boston, fell in love, and moved to the West Coast soon after realizing that — together — they were a songwriting powerhouse.
In Los Angeles, the Vanderpools released their first album as The Well Pennies, a folk-pop duo, but both had to work full-time jobs to pay the bills. And as the cliche goes, L.A. traffic was a nightmare; it once took the couple 45 minutes to drive three miles for groceries. Parking was a whole other story.
“That’s a small thing but, man, you do that all the time and it’s exhausting,” said Sarah Vanderpool, a 39-year-old Des Moines native.
The arts community was tired, too, said Bryan Vanderpool, 32.
“There would be a cool show going on to see but people are like, ‘Eh, it’s more than three exits away…’” Bryan said. “People are just exhausted, so nobody wants to go see underground theatre or find a show.”
Wanting to move to a place where they could focus their energy solely on their music, they looked to the Midwest.
“We were thinking about moving to Kansas City or Minneapolis — one of these places everyone talks about,” Bryan said. “But we came back to Des Moines to (Sarah’s parents), and we said, ‘Oh my gosh. This is the coolest city we’ve been to in years.’”
The Corn Belt has seen an influx of artists from the coasts in recent years. Lured by the relatively low cost of living, creatives are able to ditch their day jobs and open their own businesses.
But Iowa-adopted artists say affordability is only part of the appeal.
There’s a certain energy — “a current” — in Des Moines, said Bryan and Sarah, who recently released their second full-length album, Murmurations. Other artists agree: They say collaboration transcends competition in the Iowa capital, increasingly focused on building its cultural relevance.
“It’s only helped us since we’ve moved here,” Bryan said. “We can afford to be artists here.”
‘Altruistic’ arts scene welcomes outsiders
In 2012, Tobi Parks lived in Brooklyn, New York, and worked as the director of copyright at Sony Music. Her wife directed a nonprofit in the city.
“Life was just really hard,” said Parks, 42. “Compared to a lot of artist types in New York, we were doing pretty well. It wasn’t so much a financial thing for us; it was more about lifestyle,” and wanting better public schools for their sons.
Parks was “adamant” that Des Moines would not be their new home. “I said, ‘There’s no way. There can't be any kind of music scene there. No way.’” But the city met the couple’s two prerequisites: They could remain legally married and would be close to family.
She reached out to the Des Moines Music Coalition and ended up giving a talk at the nonprofit’s Music University in 2012. That same night, she recalls seeing several bands play downtown at Gas Lamp.
"That was the first sign that the music community was really unique," Parks said. "And it seemed like it was done out of pure altruism. I thought, 'Maybe there's something here.'"
Fellow New Yorker Zachary Mannheimer, who founded the Des Moines Social Club in 2008 and opened its current location in 2014, encouraged Parks to make the move. “He told me, 'Anything you want to do, you can do it here and find support for it,'" she said.
Soon after moving to Des Moines in 2015, Parks founded Station 1 Records, a nonprofit music label that helps Iowa talents launch sustainable music careers. Thomas Kutz joined on as the director of operations in 2016.
“While I think there’s still a lot of cultivation left to do in the community around getting people to engage with arts and culture, people are starting to understand how it plays into everything that makes a city a great city to live in,” Parks said. “That’s another part of what makes Des Moines unique.”
Station 1 wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the Iowans who “worked their butts off to try to make (the local arts scene) palatable for people like me and the Vanderpools,” she noted.
“And now that the platform has been set, what I want to do is raise the bar a little.”
► More from December 2018: Meet the Iowan trying to make Des Moines as hip as Austin, Portland or Nashville
► More from October 2017: Tour Mainframe Studios, downtown Des Moines' newest artist space
Collaboration pushes boundaries
On a recent June morning, Horizon Line Coffee buzzed with people working on their laptops, in quiet conversations, sipping lattes and cappuccinos.
Owners Nam Ho and Brad Penna, friends who moved from Pomona, California, to Des Moines in 2016, sat at the front of the sleek coffee bar in Des Moines’ revitalized Western Gateway neighborhood.
Both worked in higher education before moving to Iowa. But here, they’ve focused entirely on opening their business, sourcing high-quality, traceable coffees, and building relationships with their customers.
“We enjoy the balance of science and art with coffee,” said Penna, 30. “We have the opportunity to experiment with unique and creative drinks.”
“And we have the sort of financial flexibility to do that because we’re not giving it all away on rent and other living costs,” said Ho, 31.
After two years, they're now asking themselves how they can better serve their community. Ho and Penna aim to eliminate single-use paper and plastic from their shop, in phases, beginning later this summer.
“Right now, all of the onus is on the consumer, and that does not feel fair to me,” said Penna. “This is something Nam and I have been talking about for years now. Businesses have to take ownership, too.”
Their location, at the heart of a neighborhood known for public art, artist studios and several corporate headquarters, creates a diverse clientele, Ho said.
"I think we offer a nice base for those lifestyles to overlap," he said. "Whether you're a painter, a sculptor, a writer, a photographer, or even another coffee person, everyone is really supportive."
'That's cool — for Des Moines'
Part of Parks' efforts to "raise the bar" is her vision for xBK, a new music venue set to open in September. The minimalist space, currently under construction near Drake University, is intentionally designed so that the patrons are close to and engaged with the music, rather than crowded around a bar.
"We are investing a lot in the sound system," she said. "Fingers crossed, this will be the best-sounding room in Iowa."
Like Horizon Line, xBK intends to create a specific and interactive experience for concertgoers.
That nuance can be lost in national headlines on the metro's growing local arts scene. Moving to Des Moines was dubbed "the most hipster thing possible" by The Atlantic in 2014. Politico Magazine explored how the capital city "got cool" in 2016.
Artists and business owners say stereotyping negates how special the community is.
"Some people will say, 'Oh, that's really cool — for Des Moines,'" Penna said. "It feels like such a back-handed compliment laced with condescension when, really, there's so many incredible artists here."
At their recording studio, Golden Bear Records, on a recent Friday, The Well Pennies recalled how moving to Des Moines gave them total control over their latest album. Because they recorded and mixed their music in their own studio and on their own time, this record is more personal than their first, Sarah said.
Their work proves that moving wasn't only a good economic decision, she said, "but is also helping us flourish in an artistic way."
"Now, when we have friends come to visit," Bryan said, "they start looking at houses."
Shelby Fleig covers news and features for the Register. She can be reached at email@example.com and 515-214-8933.
Folk/Pop duo Bryan and Sarah Vanderpool perform their song "Worldshaker" at the Imes Covered Bridge, one of the famed Bridges of Madison County, in St. Charles, Iowa.