Though I did not know Mo Dana all that well. I wish, I would have. The former executive director of the nationally ranked annual Des Moines Arts Festival (it ranked 4th in the U.S. this year) died Nov. 9, after an eight-month battle with cancer.
Early on, when Art Scene was just forming, I would often hear in artist circles that Mo wasn’t well liked. At the time I didn’t quite understand it. But I would soon enough.
It was always artists who grumbled about how the Des Moines Arts Festival didn’t allow enough Iowa artists into the event. And more often than not, fingers were pointed directly at Mo for being the culprit. It seemed that the proverbial conspiracy theorists actually believed Mo was so powerful that she could blacklist Iowa artists from being admitted into the festival.
That’s when I became more interested in Mo. I thought, “How in the world can one woman do this?” So, off I went, pen in hand, to confront Mo and break the story that it was true—Mo didn’t like Iowan artists.
Anyone who met Mo, as I was able to do that day, realized quickly that hers was not a personality to take lightly. Although she presented herself as a hard-hitting, go-getter, underneath it all was an enormously likable person. Her smile set you at ease.
I got right to the point: “Mo, why won’t you allow Iowan artists into the Des Moines Art Festival?” And with a small shake of her head, she sat back in her chair and explained, very simply, that I was misinformed.
She had been given a job to do by the City of Des Moines, she said. That job was to re-invent Des Moines’ Art in the Park festival into an event of national caliber—and she did. Much to her surprise, she took a lot of grief for her efforts from artists themselves—grief that she shouldered year after year, knowing that the greater good emanating from the success of the Des Moines Arts Festival outweighed such unconstructive behavior.
At the festival’s conception, it immediately seemed that local and Iowa artists expected to be included. Well, why not? The name was the Des Moines Art Festival, right? So why not include every artist here? Maybe the name was incorrect or misleading, but the simple fact is that Mo did the job she was asked to do. It had nothing to do with where an artist lived, and everything to do with the creation of a nationally acclaimed attraction. An artist could be from Des Moines, Florida or Timbuktu. It didn’t matter.
It’s simple, really. If some Iowa artists were not good enough to be invited to the festival, well, they were not good enough to be invited to the festival. And now, the new director, who has the honor of succeeding Mo, inherits one of the greatest art festivals in the nation, but he also must put up with cry-baby antics and badmouthing from seemingly scorned artists who feel slighted. I mean, does anyone in his right mind believe a prerequisite in the application process for the director’s job is a desire to shun Iowa artists?
Every festival has judges that blindly evaluate art, knowing only the category in which the piece falls, not where it was created. It’s simple, you see. Like every other art festival or show around the country, the judging at the Des Moines Art Festival is fair and unbiased. Nevertheless, the complaints will continue… even after Mo’s passing.
And, if I may, even though I didn’t know her well, say that Mo was one of the fairest people I’ve met. She was honest, a straight shooter, and she deserves to be remembered for what she did for Iowa. Not what for she didn’t do.
Happy Holidays. — Roderick Kabel
Memorial contributions can be sent to Mercy Cancer Center, in care of The Mercy Foundation, 1111 Sixth Ave., Des Moines, IA., 50314. Please call (515) 875-4848 for more information.