Restaurateurs look to local creatives to elevate their exterior

Thomas Agran, Trumpet Blossom, Iowa City — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Even if you’re in it for the food and drink, a good view never hurts. At restaurants across the CRANDIC, that view is enhanced by artists.

The confluence of art and food is visible in everything from grab-and-go items eaten on brightly painted picnic benches dotting Iowa City’s downtown, to an intentional sit-down meal (with reservations even!) against the backdrop of a bold and colorful mural. Art adds immeasurably to these simple pleasures and ordinary activities.

Marcia Bollinger, City of Iowa City Neighborhood Outreach Coordinator, says that murals offer “a visual reprieve” from the flow and movement of people in commercial areas. “The movement towards murals seems to have blossomed in the past 10 years or so,” Bollinger said, and given the continual requests for proposals, there are no signs that Eastern Iowa’s interest in this genre is waning.

And if you haven’t guessed already, they also provide economic advantages.

“The financial benefit of murals in these commercial spaces is threefold,” Wendy Ford, City of Iowa City Economic Development Coordinator, said. “It is realized by increased foot traffic, interest in locating businesses in an environment that values art, and the motivation of property owners to continue investment in their neighboring properties.”

Another related advantage is that murals and visual art can capture a venue’s personality. In Iowa City, Studio 13 owner Jason Zeman says that Ali Hval’s multicolored and lighted mural outside his space encourages people to linger in the alleyway and use it as a photo-op.

Ali Hval, Studio 13, Iowa City — Jason Smith/Little Village

“I enjoy it more each day,” Zeman said. “I see it as bright, fun and diverse, a reflection of Studio 13 itself.”

And for Katy Meyer, Trumpet Blossom Cafe’s owner-chef, Thomas Agran’s large-format flowers on the building’s west facade attract passersby with their “striking lushness.” The mural’s emphasis on native flora reflects Meyer’s culinary ethos of providing quality, locally sourced, plant-based food.

These connections create a rootedness and a sense of place.

To Jamie Boling, the best outcome for an establishment is to have art that allows the patron — through an aesthetic experience — to access the establishment’s unique “atmosphere and vibe.” Boling created Freudian Slip on the Map Room in Cedar Rapids, which, along with the restaurant’s patio, marks the space as an oasis in a parking lot.

“I am a strong proponent of finding ways to speak about a brand indirectly,” Boling said. “The commercial experiences that leave a lasting impression are the ones where I feel like I have been transported into an idea.”

The Map Room could feel like an architectural holdover in a sea of asphalt, but Freudian Slip asks passersby to reconsider the space and stop in, anchoring art to place.

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“Inspired by the theme of the restaurant,” said Nick Ludwig, co-chair of Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit Murals and More, which coordinated the effort, “Jamie created a rendering incorporating elements from century-old maps of Cedar Rapids and Marion.”

Freudian Slip, Map Room, Cedar Rapids — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Even if the bottom line for art on restaurants and bars is increased foot traffic and sales, it still adds beauty to otherwise drab surroundings. Murals can transform mediocre apartment buildings, parking lots, construction sites and dumpster-filled alleyways. In the case of Drew Etienne’s work, artwork literally transforms the road, as part of the temporary patio arrangement on Iowa City’s North Linn Street.

Murals act as beacons, identifiers, landmarks, brand enhancers, photo opportunities, outdoor décor, points of interest and free entertainment. They are crucial for placemaking, and vital to our community’s wellbeing, artists, city officials and business owners agree. Perhaps most importantly, outdoor murals allow everyone to experience and interact with art — something that, Boling notes, is hard to find in a gallery or museum.

Mural by Siricasso at Casa Azteca in Huxley, Iowa. — courtesy of Siriaco Garcia

This article was originally published in the 2022 Bread & Butter dining guide.