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Market House and the Power of Public Art

August 5th, 2021 | 4 min. read

Market House and the Power of Public Art

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Public art is a vital component of Iowa City’s cultural identity. Throughout downtown, brightly colored hand-painted murals enliven the streetscape and cultivate a sense of place. While some murals are commissioned by the city, others represent a close collaboration between property owners and local artists. One such mural, “The Reciprocal of Humanity,” adorns Market House in Iowa City’s Northside neighborhood.  

Designed by Neumann Monson, Market House is a five-story, mixed-use development that provides one- and two-bedroom condominiums, as well as commercial space at ground level. In Summer 2020, real-estate developer Ross Nusser partnered with Des Moines-based artists b. Robert Moore and Dana Harrison to create a mural for the building’s north-facing wall.

The resulting work displays two Black American women overlooking the city. Making a powerful statement about racial justice, the mural represents the potential for public art to spark conversation and drive collective action.  

Designing Market House  

The Market House project began in 2018 when Nusser acquired an underutilized property in Iowa City’s historic Northside neighborhood. Nusser envisioned a building that would add density to the historic and eclectic neighborhood and increase its value.

At Neumann Monson, the design team utilized grey slate and weathered steel to break the façade into smaller visual components and better relate to the surrounding two- and three-story buildings. The weathered steel complements the neighborhood’s warm brick tones, while the grey slate provides contrast and grit.  

Creating the Mural  

Construction on Market House ended in March 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its grand opening was delayed and plans for the ground floor commercial space came to a halt. That summer, racial justice became the focal point of national conversation and Nusser saw an opportunity to add a mural to Market House’s façade. He met with b. Robert Moore who recently completed “Harvesting Humanity,” an art installation that projected images of Black Americans across grain silos in rural Iowa.  

To design Market House’s mural, Moore partnered with Dana Harrison. The pair were given complete artistic control and chose to create an image that represented Iowa City’s Sudanese and Ethiopian populations. Market House’s grey slate façade provided the ideal canvas for the image. The artists painted on the slate directly, utilizing the material to color the image.

For Moore, this was an opportunity to elevate Black representation in Iowa City—literally and figuratively. At the mural’s unveiling on July 4, 2020, Moore spoke of Iowa City’s diversity and said, “I wanted to really put that as the highest mural in Iowa City right now. Two Black women.”  

Moore and Harrison painting the mural.

Generating Conversation  

As we ease out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Market House’s residential units are officially open for tours. A new dining establishment—The Webster—has opened on the ground floor. Towering over Linn Street, the “Reciprocal of Humanity” continues to generate conversation. 

For Nusser, this is the most exciting aspect of the project. “I love being able to sit outside and listen to different conversations people have about it. That’s great to me, because that’s the purpose of art—getting people to think and step out of their comfort zone,” he says.  

Since the mural’s completion, Iowa City has increased its efforts to diversify its public art and better represent the community. Work on a mural entitled “The Oracles of Iowa City” has begun on the Capital Street parking ramp. Designed by artists Antoine Williams and Donte K. Hayes, the mural features color patterns inspired by West African rituals and ceremonies and messages inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of Double Consciousness. 

With these projects leading the way, Iowa City’s public art can continue to engage the community and foster opportunities for everyone to learn and grow.