Alumni Profile: Mary Pappajohn

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Alumni Profile: Her Art Is in the Right Place

From Fall 2010 issue
Mary and John Pappajohn with the three-story Nomade by Jaume Plensa, one of the sculptures they donated to the city of Des Moines, Iowa, for a public sculpture park. Photo courtesy of Mary Pappajohn
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When art lover Mary Pappajohn (B.S. ’55) married her husband, John, almost 50 years ago, the two were so excited about starting an art collection that they couldn’t imagine spending money on anything else. Like, say, a couch or a table and chairs. “We had priorities,” Mary Pappajohn says. “We didn’t have furniture, but we did have art on the walls.”

It wasn’t long before the Pappajohns no longer had enough wall space in their home to display their paintings. So they focused on contemporary sculpture, which they put in the backyard of their home in Des Moines, Iowa, the city they’ve called home for most of their life together. Space constraints dictated that some of the works be placed out front, including bold structures like Mark di Suvero’s spiky red T8, made of steel I-beams, and Barry Flanagan’s Thinker on a Rock, a whimsical bronze bunny curled in the famous Rodin Thinker pose. The eye-catching works became an instant attraction, and a steady stream of cars filled with curious onlookers rolled past every weekend. “Some of them would even drive up to the garage to see the art in the back,” Pappajohn says.

The constant flow of visitors convinced Mary and John that Des Moines residents harbor a keen interest in great art. One day three years ago, when the couple was driving along Locust Avenue in the city’s downtown, they saw a new city park taking shape—and they knew they had found a permanent home for their sculptures. “It was ideal, because we knew we could keep all of the art together and visit whenever we wanted,” Pappajohn says.

 John and Mary Pappajohn in the Pappajohn Sculpture Garden with Spider by Louise Bourgeois
In a gesture of civic-minded generosity and in the spirit of sharing what they love, the Pappajohns donated more than two dozen sculptures worth millions of dollars to create a four-acre public sculpture garden in downtown Des Moines. The Pappajohn Sculpture Park opened last September.

Designed by New York City–based architects Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas, the park’s gracefully curving hills and sidewalks create several open-air “rooms” that contain sculptures by internationally acclaimed artists, including Deborah Butterfield, Louise Bourgeois, and Willem de Kooning. Pappajohn says the site has become a hub of activity. “There are trained docents who take people on tours, there are weddings, and there are people who go there on their lunch breaks to sit on the benches and enjoy the space. People will stop us to tell us how much they love just sitting there,” she says.

Pappajohn, who grew up in Minneapolis, has always had a love affair with art. Her degree is in related arts, a field akin to interior design. Following graduation, she set out on her dream job: building the Pappajohns’ art collection, which ARTnews magazine ranks as one of the top 200 collections in the world. She finds great joy in building interest in contemporary art through the park. “It’s the only sculpture park I’ve ever seen that’s completely open—there are no fences at all. And we hope it will always stay that way, so people will always feel welcome to visit.”

In the meantime, Pappajohn’s got a knotty problem to solve. “We had a set of 16 chairs designed by Scott Burton that used to be in our backyard, which we gave to the park,” she says. “I think I miss them the most, because they were so functional whenever people visited.” Of course, the decision was perfectly reasonable—art, not furniture, has always been her top priority.

—Erin Peterson


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