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Marion Arts Festival: Iowa's Can't-Miss Art Spectacular

Marion is ideal for a family-friendly Iowa Getaway, located just five miles northeast of Cedar Rapids. It has roughly 35,000 residents and a small town ambiance while offering travelers world class events and historical attractions. The Uptown Marion District is a great spot for every visitor with its late 19th century buildings and more than 60 boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries.  


The Marion Arts Festival is the shortest and smallest art fair in the country, and it's consistently ranked among the top art festivals in America. Art in the Depot is an interactive aspect of the event where attendees can work side by side with Iowa artists to create ceramic art pieces. The Emerging Artists Program allows Iowa college students to sell their art alongside established professionals. The Marion Arts Festival Half Marathon and 5K Run & Fun Walk is a great event for everyone from casual walkers to serious amateur runners, and the top performers from each category receive awards. Proceeds from the “Empty Bowls" sale are donated to help feed people in the community (more than $93,000 in donations since the sale began). We got the chance to interview Festival Director, Deb Bailey, to learn more about this great art experiences.


RAL: How long has the event been running?

DB: 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the Marion Arts Festival.   The festival was conceived by local art gallery owners and community boosters as a way to bring interest and energy to Marion’s historic uptown district. The festival's focus is on creating an upscale event that’s welcoming and family-friendly -- ultimately, a day of fine art and flip flops.


RAL: How many annual participants do you draw?

DB: We’ll greet 10,000 to 14,000, with an additional 1,500 participating in early-morning fundraising runs. (Often, there’s a marriage proposal at the Finish Line).


RAL: What demographic does your event attract? Children? Families? Couples?

DB: The Marion Arts Festival is about quality art experiences for all ages. Our professional exhibitors offer the opportunity to chat, buy, or browse, and our hands-on activities engage both parents and children. Uptown Marion's historic district attracts adults and families with an array of offerings including boutique shopping, dining, and kids’ entertainment.


RAL: What makes this event unique?

DB: The Marion Arts Festival is a perfect collision of small-town delights with high-end art. It's consistently named among the top festivals nationwide, ranked in the Top 25 shows in the nation for 2017, and named among the Top 6 Smaller Fairs in the US (Art Fair Source Book). The event is free, the art is exceptional and affordable, and the community embraces visitors with enthusiasm.


RAL: Take me through the activities of a day at the event.

DB: The fair is small and mighty – just the right size to be fully entertained, without being overwhelmed. Marion’s Uptown is home to unique shops, restaurants, coffee emporiums, galleries, pubs, and microbreweries.  The Public Library holds their annual book sale, and there’s a Rotary waffle breakfast. Patrons can also attend a Master Gardener garden expo, and with a maze of uptown alleyways filled with award-winning public art. These attractions fan out in every direction, all within blocks of the park. With so many options, families can tailor their perfect day.


RAL: What dining options will be available?

DB: The park is host to diverse food offerings, from kettle corn and ice cream to French-style crepes and traditional Mexican street foods. All of the eating and drinking establishments in the uptown district are one-offs, including the metro area’s #1-voted pizzeria, and a shop of handmade chocolates and confections.


RAL: What is the environment like?

DB: At a glance, it seems impossible that the festival can fit artists, food vendors, hands-on activities, and 12,000 attendees into a town square. We do, and it’s a perfect storm of excitement. The art circus is in town for one day only, and it is glorious.


RAL: What can an attendee expect to find for local lodging?

DB: Marion’s Best Western Plus Longbranch is locally owned and operated, and retains its original 70’s vibe. Cedar Rapids, to which Marion is adjacent, is host to an array of Airbnb options, offering unique, affordable lodging experiences, from traditional bed-and-breakfasts to modern, repurposed industrial spaces with great views, in walkable, multi-use neighborhoods.


RAL: What does this event mean to the community?

DB: The MAF showcases Marion as a unique and vibrant year round destination. The week of the event, high school students fan out across uptown to spruce up and assist in flower planting. Troops of Boy Scouts welcome our audience on event day, offering information and sunscreen. The city and its residents are all-in as fun and courteous hosts.


RAL: Does the event support a particular cause in the community?

DB: The MAF is committed to making a difference beyond the festival. Proceeds of the “Empty Bowls” sale help to feed 8,000 individuals each year, and demonstrates to kids how their time and talents can make a difference. Over the sale’s history, more than $93,000 has been donated. Our fundraising runs support festival-sponsored artist residencies in area schools.


RAL: Why should people come to your event?

DB: Art is fun, and our exhibitors are true ambassadors. They’ve traveled from across the country, are delighted to be with us, and fully engage adults and kids alike. Individuals and couples have the opportunity to make once-in-a-lifetime purchases, in that any given year’s slate of artists are with us one day only. As the Cedar Rapids metro area’s largest and most diverse festival event, it’s great fun to help create a lasting impression. No matter what time of year, Marion is a great day trip – festival day, Marion is a great day trip multiplied by art.


For more information about the Marion Arts Festival, please visit the event website.