Which industry n Dubuque spends big bucks, generates household income in addition to money for local and state government and supports a wide array of jobs?

The answer: Arts and culture.

In 2010, the City of Dubuque conducted the Arts and Economic Prosperity IV study through Americans for the Arts, a national nonprofit arts advocacy organization. The findings, published in 2012, showed that 1,530 full-time jobs were supported by the arts, in addition to $36 million in household income and $5 million in revenue for local and state government. The total rang in at $47.2 million in industry expenditures.

As a result, the city in 2016 rolled out the Arts and Culture Master Plan under the guidance of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission. In 2017, the City Council adopted a Community Enactment Strategy to guide implementation of the plan. And this year, the City of Dubuque Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, in conjunction with the Arts and Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission, has sought public input to implement the 10-year plan.

The goal, according to city officials, is to provide a road map for enhancing the cultural and economic vitality of the community through public and private partnerships and community leadership.

It also aims to continue building upon momentum, which Dubuque Area Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO Keith Rahe credited as finding its roots in the development of the Port of Dubuque and with the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.

“The arts have always had a strong presence in Dubuque, but in my opinion, the development of the Port of Dubuque created the energy to take it further,” he said. “The value of the arts, especially from the standpoint of the tourism industry, is significant. For us, it provides a whole other marketing platform. Attractions like the river museum, the symphony, outdoor concerts, the film festival, Art on the River and everything Voices Productions has done to bring awareness to our Warehouse District and the older buildings downtown with the murals, it makes our area very unique place for people to visit.”

It also has added to the area’s workforce, in the food, beverage and hospitality industries, as well as various facets of the arts, from education to administration and creation.

“We certainly notice an uptick when there are events in town,” said Chuck Whalen, director of sales and marketing at the Holiday Inn Dubuque/Galena, which houses a substantial portion of entertainment that comes through the area. “People come to town to stay with us because they want to be close to the venues and the downtown area. Events at Five Flags are always discussed in our meetings so that we can anticipate the uptick in rooms and at the River Rock Kitchen & Tap.”

The hotel partners with arts organizations such as the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra, offering items like half-price drinks prior to concerts.

“We also work the universities,” Whalen said. “Both before and after shows, we see huge business from each of the local venues. We’ve also started hosting our own live music, so there are opportunities there as well.”

Here’s a look at how other various sectors of the arts have made their mark:


When the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival launched in 2012, Susan Gorrell, a filmmaker from southeast Iowa, entered a documentary, “A Million Spokes,” about RAGBRAI, Iowa’s statewide non-competitive bicycle ride.

Today, she serves as the organization’s executive director. And under her leadership, the festival has earned rave reviews among filmmakers, festival-goers and industry insiders. It also has helped put Dubuque on the map for a new audience.

“I saw an opportunity to help out,” Gorrell said. “And, Dubuque — especially its Main Street businesses — has welcomed the festival with open arms.”

In turn, filmmakers have been introduced to the community, both as creators and spectators. Many attend the festival even when they do not have films screening. It all means a boost for local businesses, especially restaurants, bars and lodging establishments.

Gorrell said the festival went from 25 film submissions in its first year to approximately 700 for this past April’s event.

“The filmmakers love how receptive the community is,” Gorrell said. “It’s not just about creating an art event for Dubuque and the Midwest. It’s also about creating a business structure for filmmakers to network. All of it combines to form a great economic impact for Dubuque.”

Retail and galleries

The tri-state area is home to a multitude of locally curated galleries. However, unlike organizations such as the Dubuque Museum of Art, a Smithsonian affiliate that houses a collection of everything from classic to contemporary pieces for patrons to admire, others function as a retail space.

Outside the Lines Art Gallery features work created by local and regional artists — painters, photographers, potters, jewelers and more. It opened a Dubuque location in 2003 and 10 years later added a shop in Galena, Ill. This year, the organization marked its 15th anniversary.

“When we first put our heads together for the gallery, the philosophy was how we could help artists stay in the business of being an artist,” said Connie Twining, who co-owns the gallery with Stormy Mochal. “We’re not a museum. We’re not a nonprofit. We’re open year-round and in the business of selling fine art at varied price points. We need patrons just as much as we need artists to stay alive.”

The gallery also collaborates with local businesses.

“We work with clients that understand the importance of filling their lobbies and offices with art,” Twining said. “They’re getting something completely original with a local connection. That makes a difference not only to customers but to the people employed at those companies.”

Galena (Ill.) Center for the Arts is another venue that houses local and regional art. Unlike Outside the Lines, it functions as a nonprofit organization and includes a performance space it hopes to expand. The gallery also has studio space for artists, workshops for songwriters and niche offerings.

“Our mission is to elevate and celebrate regional arts and artists,” said executive director Carole Sullivan, who has enjoyed artistic careers as an educator, actor, vocalist, director and playwright. “We formed as a nonprofit organization in 2014 and already, I think we’re way ahead where we anticipated we’d be.”

The performing arts


With the addition of performance spaces including the University of Dubuque’s Heritage Center, as well as a roster of big-name entertainment acts at Five Flags Center, Q Casino and the Mississippi Moon Bar, among other stages such as America’s River Festival, live music has stepped up its game in the tri-states, according to Five Flags General Manager H.R. Cook.

“Anytime there is an event — it doesn’t matter if it’s a small conference or a major concert — for most arenas, the draw is local,” he said. “But we’re seeing people come in from Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, the Quad Cities ... With all of these events — and not just the concerts but the riverfront, festivals and the downtown area — people are coming in and staying overnight or they want to make a weekend of it.”

Cook said when he arrived in Dubuque three years ago, much was happening in the Key City. But that’s continued to grow.

“It’s the saying, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats,’” he said. “Five Flags, Q Casino, the Mississippi Moon Bar, Heritage Center all started aggressively booking shows. Even community theaters like the Grand Opera House have changed it up and are bringing in concert acts occasionally. And what’s nice is that everyone has their niche.”

Concerts such as Kenny Rogers and Chicago, as well a string of country entertainers and family shows, have broken box office records. Willie Nelson’s appearance at Five Flags earlier this year grossed $270,000 in ticket sales — the highest-grossing show at the venue since the 1980s, according to Cook.

It’s prompting Five Flags and City of Dubuque officials to reconsider the future of the venue, which could include possible expansion.

“It’s made Dubuque a major competitor in the region,” Cook said. “Today, I would put Dubuque up against any city of 200,000 people or less when it comes to arts and entertainment.”

The Dubuque Symphony Orchestra is another organization that has diversified its offerings, counting a range of classics concerts, family concerts, holiday concerts and even rock and country concerts among its arsenal.

The orchestra also has grown to employ a staff of nine, as well as musicians to the tune of 60 instrumentalists and a roster of world-class guest artists.

“We’re in a unique position compared to many in the orchestra world,” said Executive Director Mark Wahlert. “Classical concerts are our core. But we’ve explored new ways to share music with the community in less traditional venues than the concert hall. I think there are equal parts to our success. William Intriligator (music director and conductor) has been an engaging face for the organization. But we also employ incredibly talented local and regional, professional musicians — many of whom perform with several orchestras throughout the Midwest. The quality of our orchestra is strong, and we need it to be in order to continue exploring new ways to attract patrons. At the end of the day, it’s a business.”


Live theater is another facet of the performing arts that has kicked things up a notch, with local companies staging productions both seasonally and year-round, as well as booking regional and national touring acts.

At Dubuque’s Grand Opera House, Executive and Artistic Director Frank McClain’s focus is on maintaining a level of quality that audiences can expect in a market that is growing more competitive.

The Grand also houses Dubuque’s Academy of Ballet, led by Marina O’Rourke.

“You want to make sure it doesn’t dip below a certain level,” McClain said. “Our primary mission is as a community theater, so we want to make sure we’re fostering potential from our area and giving actors a positive experience. We also want to give patrons a reason to come back to the theater.”

At Dubuque’s Bell Tower Theater, a growing emphasis is placed on attracting patrons from both inside and outside of the area. Bus tours have made a tremendous impact, according to Operations and Marketing Manager Miki Robinson.

“Last year, we hosted 580 patrons from bus groups for a total of almost $10,000,” she said. “This year, we hosted 850 people for almost $15,000. In the last two years, we’ve had 18 different bus companies that have come to the theater. For us, it’s a major return on investment. And it’s bringing people to the area that might have never been here. Pretty much everyone eats here when they come. Most are day-trippers, but a few stay overnight. So, it’s benefiting our local economy in a big way.”

Festivals and other events

From live music to food, art and more, festivals have long been an economic boon to the area, drawing both locals and visitors.

Dubuque Main Street’s Downtown Dubuque Cultural Corridor is just one that provides opportunities with events such as Architecture Days and the Fall Into Art Gallery Tour. But it also caters to live music with the longstanding Dubuque ... And All That Jazz! as well as the Local & Live Music Crawl and the newly launched Build a Better Block, which took place for 10 days in September and featured seven pop up shops in vacant storefronts, public art and other events on Dubuque’s Central Avenue.

“It’s really about giving people a reason to visit,” said Dubuque Main Street Executive Director Dan LoBianco. “It’s place-making. Efforts like this are also encouraging job-retention as much as anything.”

Program Specialist Michaela Freiburger echoed this for other Dubuque Main Street initiatives as well.

“Dubuque Main Street utilizes a four-point approach — design, organization, promotion and economic development,” she said. “When these points are combined, we find growth and resiliency in downtowns across the nation. From restaurant feedback to nightlife after downtown events, positive feedback across the board demonstrates the arts have a measurable impact on the success downtown. Often discussed is why Dubuque … And All That Jazz! ends at 9, and the response is simple. We intentionally send our crowd to explore downtown Dubuque venues.”

Dubuque Main Street also has added a Music Crawl to its annual events after receiving positive feedback to the exposure of the diversity of venues offering live music — the second of which will take place on Jan. 25 in eight local venues.

“Many of the participants had not visited some of the establishments either ever or in the last 10 years,” Freiburger said. “Partnering the arts with business has an impact on the success of the economic development downtown Dubuque.”

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