Meet the new director of (arguably) the most creative address in Des Moines
Julia Franklin is an artist, teacher, collector, collaborator and much more. And she just added an executive director role to her resume.
Just inside the door to Julia Franklin’s studio sit plastic bins full of chicken bones, wasps’ nests, gnarly twigs, and other castaway objects she has gathered and curated as raw material for her installation art.
At the back of her studio, the wall above her desk is plastered with word clouds, lists, and other brainstorming documents that represent, she says, “a couple lifetimes of ideas.”
Franklin refers to herself not only as an artist but as a collector. Not only as a collector but a connector—connecting artists to each other and to their community.
That’s truer than ever now that she’s been named the new executive director of Mainframe Studios.
If you’re in central Iowa, you’ve likely heard of this arts collective—or spotted its unmistakable colorful concrete four-story façade along Keo Way as you roll into the heart of downtown Des Moines.
Mainframe is known as the nation’s largest nonprofit art studio building: 220 artists occupying 180 studios. (One of its commercial cousins, for comparison, the five-story Western Avenue in Lowell, Massachusetts, boasts 350 artists in 250 lofts as well as its own craft brewery.)
I wanted to drop in and meet Franklin because I’ve come to cherish Mainframe as one of our metro’s primary cultural hubs—especially its monthly First Fridays events when the artists throw open the doors of their studios and welcome the public inside (free admission) to mingle, browse, drink, nosh, purchase, dance—to hang out and enjoy the bustling scene in a variety of ways, depending on the changing theme.
Arguably this rates the most purely creative address in Des Moines?
Yes, things can get—ahem—creative each year beneath the golden dome of the Iowa State Capitol, but governing is a messy art all its own.
The Des Moines Art Center supports an impressive calendar of classes, but primarily it’s an architecturally beautiful museum.
Mainframe mainly is a workplace that doubles as a community venue, and therein lies its charm—a transparent celebration of the raw craft and discipline it takes to fuel art. It’s one thing to be inspired. It’s another to grind away and bring that inspiration to life.
Mainframe is a building, as Franklin puts it, that should represent “infinite right possibilities.” In other words, this building stands as a monument not to definitive answers but to the thrill of endless questions. And now Franklin, following in the footsteps of founding director Siobhan Spain, gets to serve as chief curiosity officer.
“Everything has led me to this moment,” she says.
Franklin most recently worked as a community investment specialist with Bravo Greater Des Moines, the regional arts council where she managed more than $4 million in annual operating grants for scores of arts and culture nonprofits. So she can navigate the less inspiring realm of budgets and spreadsheets.
In her life she gradually has migrated north, from her native Texas to Graceland University in Lamoni (where for many years she was an art professor) to Des Moines (where in the pandemic she oversaw Drake University’s Anderson Gallery).
Within Mainframe, Franklin keeps moving closer to the ground floor.
Franklin leased her first studio on the fourth floor in 2018, just after being awarded an Iowa Artist Fellowship and $10,000.
She gave up her lease during the budget squeeze of the pandemic but eventually returned to a loft on the third floor—which she’s now giving up to move into her executive director office on the second floor.
So many artists tend to be motivated, Franklin says, by the emotional “crater” in their lives. Her own childhood has helped to fuel her artwork, including remembering and researching the complicated life of her late father.
But Franklin also credits her role as a parent for perhaps her most profound artistic pivot.
When her daughter was a curious 4-year-old, Franklin led her on long, meandering walks around the Graceland campus and Lamoni. At that point the artist already had been collecting found objects for her printmaking and sculpting. But she was mostly focused on their design and form—the structures that contributed visually to her final pieces.
Lingering on the rural landscape with her daughter—both their pockets bulging with random objects by the time they returned home—inspired Franklin to pause and notice each item in more detail. It gave her time to think.
Essentially, the daughter’s innocent curiosity prompted the mother to dwell on not only the structure but the story and meaning behind each object.
Thus humble walks with her daughter reframed Franklin’s entire artistic view.
This led to how she describes herself today as an “installation artist who uses old, worn objects to transform spaces into nostalgic settings that invite strangers to connect with the past, share their own stories, and spark new conversations.”
Today, Franklin’s daughter, 21, studies biology at the University of Northern Iowa and sometimes still can be found wandering through nature—in this case tracking endangered wood turtles.
Meanwhile, Franklin’s first day on the job at Mainframe is Dec. 1—also the ritual First Friday. The month’s theme is ceramics. Franklin will be on hand to circulate throughout the building and serve in her familiar role as connector.
“If these creatives are strong and hitting their goals, then Mainframe will be strong,” she says.
In a way it’s easy for Franklin to sum up her basic mission as executive director: How can she help Mainframe feel as vibrant on an average day as it does on a First Friday?
2 events for our paid subscribers
Our Iowa Writers’ Collaborative has two more events for paid subscribers this year—one online and one in person.
The Office Lounge, noon Friday, Nov. 24 online: Join our latest monthly Zoom call known as “the Office Lounge” with featured guest Ellen Won Steil, author of a debut suspense novel, “Fortune.” Steil grew up in Iowa in a Korean-American family, earned a journalism degree from Drake University and a law degree from William Mitchell College of Law. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and two sons and believes most good stories contain at least a hint of darkness. As long as you’re a subscriber to at least one of the newsletters in the collaborative, log into the Nov. 24 Zoom session. (I can’t attend due to family commitments during the holiday, but I know that my collaborative colleagues will treat you well.)
Iowa Writers’ Collaborative Holiday Party, 5 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7 at the Witmer House, 2900 Grand Ave., Des Moines: All paid subscribers also are welcome to join us for this festive gathering in person at the original Iowa governor’s mansion. I’m looking forward to chatting over eggnog with a diverse array of fellow writers and readers. Please RSVP here as soon as possible. Light appetizers and a cash bar will be available.