The Iowa City Ped Mall has seen Herkys on parade, tree sweaters, outdoor pianos, a massive $20,000 bike rack and more, but perhaps its most enduring and diverse public art project has been its painted benches.
Since the summer of 2012, the City of Iowa City, Iowa City Downtown District and sponsor GreenState Credit Union (formerly University of Iowa Community Credit Union) have teamed up with local artists to paint dozens of downtown benches with animals, insects, inspirational quotes, psychedelic patterns and other original designs.
Soon, the nearly year-old designs will be covered with a fresh coat of white paint and prepped for a new round of bench artists. Applications are now open to members of the public to pitch their ideas. Chosen artists receive $350 and a gift card to Blick Art Materials.
The program, called BenchMarks, was one of the first community initiatives organized by the Iowa City Downtown District after its formation in 2012. BenchMarks was put on hold in 2019 as construction crews worked on the extensive Ped Mall Improvement Plan, which included tearing up the brick pavement, reworking gas lines and other utilities, creating a more even cityscape, adding new planters and replacing old benches.
These new benches became a point of contention in the community, despite receiving support from members of the public during the city council’s earlier listening sessions regarding the Improvement Plans. Unlike the older (and oft-painted) Ped Mall benches, the new, longer designs had a bar in the middle — ostensibly to help elderly and disabled residents support themselves as they sit and stand, but which are often markers of “hostile architecture” designed by cities to keep homeless people from lying down on benches or other public surfaces.
Following weeks of backlash, the Iowa City Council voted in January 2019 to replace 14 of the 70 new benches with center-armrest-less benches.
In 2020 and this year, BenchMarks will be limited to benches facing the playground outside of the Iowa City Public Library.
“While designs that feel accessible or engaging for children are especially encouraged given this context, kids are sophisticated thinkers too!” the application reads. “All design proposals will be considered.”
The application period for BenchMarks 2021 closes at midnight on April 9. Selected artists will be notified and receive guidelines from organizers in the third week of April. After that, they may paint according to their own schedule, so long as they keep the area around their bench tidy and have the design finished and varnished by June 1.