Dubuque, IA: Arts in the District

Photo by Ronald W. Tigges | Dubuque Main Street

How can a city help an existing arts community continue to thrive in a developing historic neighborhood?

As a former center of manufacturing, Dubuque, Iowa, had a large stock of vacant and underutilized industrial spaces along its Mississippi River waterfront. To promote economic development in the city and to increase access to the arts, the city set out to repurpose some of the historic district’s key buildings into arts- and culture-related spaces that could support the growing creative community of the area.


Set along a curve of the Mississippi River, Dubuque, Iowa, is known as much for its natural beauty as it is for its historic architecture. With a vibrant economy once founded on river-based manufacturing and milling, the riverfront is dotted with structures that served as engines of industry. These are now being restored and adapted for new uses, including artist housing. In the downtown area close to the riverfront, the Historic Millwork District (HMD) is an area with an impressive collection of former mills. Over the years, artists and art groups have begun to reclaim this district as a home for the creative community. In 2007, the city began a comprehensive effort to revitalize this district.


The city of 60,000 people draws tens of thousands of visitors each year, with many coming from around the Midwest region to Dubuque’s cultural and natural attractions, including the Heritage Trail, the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area, and the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. The downtown area, however, has long been marginalized from that tourist activity. The HMD is still largely vacant and underutilized with few residents living within the District. With an active arts community now invested culturally in the district, this trend has begun to reverse itself. The community adjacent to the HMD, the Washington Neighborhood, has tended to be low- income, under-served, and at-risk. The area is seeing an increase in homeownership levels and an uptick in the educational levels of residents. The City has partnered with Washington Neighborhood Development Corporation and Community Housing Initiatives to increase housing rehabilitation and homeownership. Seeing investment from both the private and public sectors, the entire area is now a city conservation district, which is helping to preserve the existing homes.


The city recognized the need for the HMD to become a vibrant, mixed-use community for both residents and business owners, a need which is closely linked with the city and region's broader socioeconomic development. With buildings that sat vacant or rarely visited for many years, the city was interested in identifying active uses for these spaces. Following the completion of the Downtown Master Plan, the Historic District Master Plan was created with artists and arts organizations as a key stakeholder group. Stakeholders recognized the need to put art at the center of the HMD redevelopment, a recurring theme at stakeholder meetings and within the masterplan document.


The city set out to develop a masterplan that would address these local challenges. As Assistant City Manager Cindy Steinhauser said, “we wanted to establish appropriate mechanisms to strengthen the rich tapestry of historical buildings, streets, spaces, and compelling narratives of past and present communities of people.” At the center of the city’s plan was art. “The Historic Millwork District should be a place where art thrives,” said Steinhauser, “and where people want to live, work and play.” The city wanted to be sure to increase access to art, too. With a nearby arts charter elementary school, Prescott, the city had an opportunity to position art as an educational experience, creating regional impact from this work in the HMD. As Steinhauser said, “it is the vision of the city to make Dubuque and the Historic Millwork District a regional hub for arts in the Midwest.”



The project, Arts in the District, was co-led by the city and Dubuque Main Street/Downtown Dubuque Cultural Corridor (DMS/DDCC), a nonprofit organization committed to the economic and cultural development of the city's downtown area. DMS/DDCC provides support for arts and culture programming, so it had the background experience necessary to help with authoring an arts masterplan. Because the project entailed historic structures, the team brought in experts on historic preservation, including historic rehabilitation company Gronen Restoration, architecture firm Jeffrey Morton Associates, and Artspace, a nonprofit organization that assists communities and property owners with arts initiatives.


The project team conducted an assessment of historic buildings in the district, identifying three that could be repurposed into a performance and visual art space.Working with local developers and with Minneapolis- based Artspace, the team made structural and architectural recommendations regarding the adaptation of the buildings. Once these were identified, the organizers turned to programming the space with a series of events and exhibitions that would draw a diverse, year-round audience to the HMD. A national request-for-proposals drew an impressive roster of artists, who proposed events, festivals, installations, and exhibitions. “The biggest challenge,” recalled Steinhauser, “was to get all the events scheduled, coordinated, and not overly concentrated within a couple weeks in order to not dilute attendance.” Most events were kept free and open to the public, while collaborating with public transportation officials led to free shuttles being run to and around the events. Both offerings emphasized the city’s interest in broadening arts access.


Even though much of the project is focused on the long- term, significant impacts have already been measured. Architects have drawn up plans for the adaptive reuse of three historic buildings, which if developed will significantly impact the district. The programs enlisted over 100 local artists, more than 10 arts organizations, and thousands of residents and visitors in arts-related activities. As more of the historic structures are transformed and arts activity grows, organizers will continue to measure impact using the Arts Economic Impact Study and the Americans for the Arts Local Arts Index. An initial economic impact assessment has estimated a $47.2 million annual economic impact for Dubuque. As Steinhauser said, “the program has elevated the arts as a significant economic player in Dubuque--the arts mean business, the arts create jobs, increases vitality.” More qualitatively, the neighborhood has changed in big ways, too. “The arts helped us create a more welcoming and diverse community,” Steinhauser remarked.


Attendance at the various events was higher than they could have expected. Organizers attribute part of this impact to the strong community support. “The most pleasant surprise,” remembered Steinhauser, “was how organizations sponsored and promoted events in the district, without directly benefiting from financial assistance provided by the NEA grant funding.” When asked if the energy of the grant-funded program had a multiplicative effect across the district, Steinhauser responded, “Absolutely. Our original program generated other programming, including a theater troupe moving into the HMD, and an expo that will now happen every summer.” Two nonprofit arts organizations have located their headquarters in the district, and one annual arts event has grown to four annual events. Washington Neighborhood, adjacent to the HMD, has also experienced an arts infusion, with the two street murals completed in 2013 and another underdevelopment with a Studio Works artist and local residents on a vacant building at the edge of the District. Moving forward, the city is cautious in respecting the character of and residents nearby the District. “We want to keep the momentum by expanding programming in a way that avoids the gentrification that would make this district unaffordable,” said Steinhauser.


Historic Millwork District Revitalization
Project information on the City of Dubuque website

Voices from the Warehouse District
Exhibit in Fall 2014


"Understand your community, your partners, and your vision. Is it a shared vision? If not, take the time to develop the shared vision before you implement anything. The challenges will be fewer as you always have this shared vision to refer back to as your end goal. It helps keep everyone accountable to each other and is a good motivator to keep everyone going." Cindy Steinhauser, Assistant City Manger, City of Dubuque

  • Gronen Restoration
  • Jeffrey Morton Associates
  • Artspace
  • Dubuque Museum of Art
  • Dubuque County Fine Arts Society
  • Fly-By-Night Productions
  • Matter Creative Center

"Take advantage of the resources (no matter how little they seem) that people make available. Even if doing so only creates awareness and helps that person or organization feel connected to the event, that is important for long-term success." Cindy Steinhauser, Assistant City Manger, City of Dubuque