Q&A: Michael Morain reports on Iowa’s art community

Michael Morain Photo courtesy of Michael Morain

If there’s one person who knows the Des Moines art scene, it’s Michael Morain.

Morain covered the arts beat for The Des Moines Register for over a decade and now is the Communication Manager of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. He manages a team of four, IowaCulture.gov and various social media accounts for the department.

“If it has to do with art, history or film, we have our fingers in the pie,” Morain says.

We sat down with Morain to hear more about his work at the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, how the Des Moines art community has evolved over the last decade and his favorite memories from the arts beat at The Des Moines Register.

The interview has been edited for conciseness…

Talk about your current job…

MM: Just this morning I was working on a year-end roundup for the first year of our mobile museum. The exhibit is a sister exhibit to “Iowa History 101” so this is a custom built Winnebago RV that has artifacts from the museums’ collection and just launched at the beginning of this year.

Over the next three years, it will visit all 99 counties. We visited 36 counties, it was at the Iowa State Fair, the 100th Annual Clay County Fair, it followed the RAGBRAI route and parked at the overnight town.

One thing we are gearing up for is this gala on Dec. 8 that’s our big fundraiser for the year. It raises money for museum exhibits and education programs. But this year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Arts Council and the 160th for the Historical Society.

So when Iowa was just 11 years old as a state people got together to start collecting our state’s history. So 160 years ago some smart people got together to start the Historical Society, so we are celebrating that at the gala.

The other thing the department oversees is we manage a bunch of grants. There are grants available for history projects, historic preservation, we have the state historic preservation office. We help connect developers or property owners to either federal or state tax credits or tax incentives. There are also grants for history museums if they want to preserve artifacts or update their inventory for history museums.

Then there’s a big menu of grants for arts and arts organizations. That’s primarily the Iowa Arts Council. Our office promotes the grants and do all of the administrative stuff, but for each of the grants an independent committee decides how to distribute the money.

How did you get involved in covering the arts?

MM: I grew up in Ames, I was in music stuff in high school and college but nothing very official. I was the drum major of the Ames High School Marching Band, played French horn, was in choir and played the piano.

I majored in International Studies at Graceland University and was all set to go to the Peace Corps but then 9/11 hit and things were sort of up in the air. So I taught French for a couple years in northern Minnesota. Then I went to get a journalism masters degree at Northwestern, and that program was just one calendar year. And each quarter had a different focus. So one of those quarters I took the focus on arts reporting.

So for about three months we just threw ourselves at all the stuff Chicago had to offer, from concerts and plays to museum exhibits and dance performances. We wrote for all of the suburban Chicago papers except for the two biggies the Sun-Times and Tribune.

That was the quarter I loved the most. We did a legal quarter and I spent a quarter in Washington D.C on politics. This was in 2003-2004. I also did an optional add-on where I was an intern for the AP in New Delhi, India.

So when I graduated I came back to Iowa and sent resumes all over the planet. I did not plan on staying in Iowa but wasn’t against it. And it turns out there was an opening at the Register and its magazine Juice. So they hired me to help launch Juice. I was there for about 1 ½ years before moving up to the grown-up paper as the Arts Reporter in 2006.

I was there for 11 years, and ten were as an arts reporter. I really loved it.

How did the arts community evolve over that decade?

MM: Des Moines has grown and the arts scene has grown a lot. People say downtown has flourished over the last 10-15 years and people say that’s happened with the art scene too. There are just more options.

And what I love about Des Moines is that it’s small enough that somebody can have an idea and rally support for that idea, and make it happen, relatively quickly compared to other places. Rental space isn’t super expensive, there’s a community spirit and people want to help a project get off the ground.

There’s not a guarantee, but here you have a better shot than a lot of places. So if you want to start a theatre company, you are more likely to do it in Des Moines than in New York or Chicago where you have to fight for space.

But there’s also a smaller audience and a lot of the shows I got to have a lot of the same groups of people. So I think in Des Moines there’s a huge untapped audience, a lot of people here in Central Iowa especially have nothing against the arts or the theatre or opera, but it’s not part of their regular routine. When they have a free weekend they don’t think about which play they want to go to, it’s just not how people think around here. So there’s an untapped market?

What would surprise somebody the arts community?

MM: One is the Des Moines Performing Arts and its Broadway Series. Des Moines Performing Arts frequently brings in Broadway Tours early on in the tour. There’s just more buzz about it. It’s nice that Des Moines is early on the list, and part of that is Des Moines draws from the whole state, yet we are far enough from Chicago, Minneapolis or Kansas City.

The other thing with Des Moines Performing Arts, they are part of the Independent Presenters Network, so Des Moines Performing Arts as part of this pool invests in Broadway production companies. Just like a startup, they invest in a company so if that show goes on tour then Des Moines gets to cut in front of the line on the tour, because they were an investor.

The other thing that surprises out-of-towners is the Des Moines Metro Opera, which is 40 some years old and up there in terms of opera companies. Part of the reason it succeeds, is early on they figured out a model where the company just performs in the summer and they are based at Simpson College.

Then they run their shows in repertory so on one weekend you can see three different shows. But it’s a great theatre and bowl-shaped with 400 or so seats. I remember reviewing “Othello” and the first scene they drag a boat onto the beach and they were soaking wet. They shook off and I got water droplets on me, I mean you are right in the middle of things.

And they are really smart about programming operas that are rarely performed. So opera singers, even A-listers who have always dreamed about being in a certain opera but it’s rare, sometimes they come to Des Moines because they get a chance to do a rare show that they never get a chance to do. So they figured out a good formula that has worked for a long time. Opera fans come from all over the country, I think each year they have over 40 states represented.

And of course the Des Moines Arts Center too, I would say those three, the quality would surprise people who are not from here.

Tell us a story from your newspaper days…

MM: One of my favorites, I covered the opening of the Pappajohn Sculpture Park which was fascinating. Because going into it I didn’t know a lot about contemporary sculpture, so I learned a lot. And I got to interview John and Mary Pappajohn several times. And visited their home when some of their sculptures were in their front and backyard.

So that was really fun.

But I also got to accompany the Pappajohns to the art auctions in New York. And again, my learning curve was very steep because I don’t frequent high end art auctions in New York very often. So I made this trip to New York with them and one night we went to Christie’s, and apparently there’s an annual show where all of the collectors come in and everybody in the room knows each other. It’s a bunch of gazillionaires.

I sat by John and Mary Pappajohn and they let me hold the paddle and it made me so nervous, I didn’t want to accidentally bid on something. But then night we were there, on one painting the increments went up by $10 million.

So in like seven minutes this thing sold for $180 million. It was just crazy.

And just this past week, the da Vinci sold for like $450 million in that same room, and I could picture exactly, there are people on the wall on the phone with secret bidders. What was so great about my job was I got to do some of that and the next weekend I’d go to the Des Moines Playhouse and review Charlotte’s Web.

Favorite interviews?

MM: The other thing that was great was when a big star came into the civic center, if they had one interview, they usually did it with The Register, so I kept a list on my phone of my greatest hits of people I got to interview.

Dolly Pardon was great, I interviewed Bill Cosby…David Sedaris.

One time I called him (Sedaris) when he was living in Paris and it was 1 a.m. Paris time. And beforehand I asked is it ok with this? And he was up wrapping Christmas presents, in August, for his family.

He was chatty.