As the American Queen paddled through the railroad bridge, the Celebration Belle crossed under the Iowa-Illinois bridge and turned toward the Port of Dubuque. Dozens of onlookers, cameras at the ready, captured images from the Riverwalk behind the Grand River Center.
The riverboats served as a perfect backdrop for Bill O'Brien, senior adviser for program innovation at the National Endowment for the Arts, to discuss creative place making and sustainability Tuesday during the fifth annual Growing Sustainable Cities Conference.
"The focus is really to think about how art works on a community and smart strategies to promote good city design, so the aesthetics of a place and what makes it worth celebrating is really lifted up and noticeable," O'Brien said.
Like having a place for people to watch boat traffic on the Mississippi, for instance.
O'Brien, who grew up on a farm between Bernard, Iowa, and Cascade, Iowa, was attracted to the arts by performances at Cascade High School he attended as a boy. He turned his passion into a career that spans stage and screen. He played Kenny Thurman, Marlee Matlin's voice/interpreter, on NBC's "The West Wing."
"I was a smaller ensemble player, but it was perfect because the theater producing I was doing was a very busy thing," he said. "The little bit of TV allowed me to focus on my theater rather than auditioning all over to spackle in the cracks."
As a youngster, he was amazed by the transformation of people he knew once they took the stage. As an adult, he is exploring how the arts can transform cities.
"One of the things that makes a community sustainable is the attraction it has for the people who live there, but also for those who might consider living there," O'Brien said. "So you sustain the interest, and the investment goes back and forth. A healthy community is going to have that."
Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol said five years of hosting the conference has coincided with five years of exponential growth in the arts.
"You can tell the impact of arts and culture on the community, not only in dollars but jobs created, and it's quite extensive in the city of Dubuque," Buol said, referring to a recent study measuring the economic impact of the arts on Dubuque. "Today it's 1,500 jobs that wouldn't be here without it. It's a big economic impact."
Tom Woodward, president and CEO of Sustainable City Network, said the conference grew to 450 registrations this year from 16 states and 70-plus communities. Last year's event drew 350 people from 12 states and 50 communities.
"One thing we did this year was to add programming that would be applicable not only to municipalities but also to the private sector," Woodward said. "We're seeing about 100 private-sector attendees, and we think that is a good thing."