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Art is Solving Community Issues: New Light Installation Coming Soon

Borealis Installation

December 3, 2020

We can all think of memorable places we’ve visited. The ones that surprise us when we turn a corner and realize we’ve arrived in a place that knows how to express itself. From quaint, historical downtown areas where locals stroll on brick streets, play and listen to music in public spaces and shop in the boutiques that revive historical buildings wearing centuries of character, to the cosmopolitan glass and steel sentinels towering over bustling pedestrians, we know that places secure in their personalities feel special. These places beckon to visitors, business and residents with inspiration. They provide the spaces that people remember and grow to love. Following years of planning, artist Alex Braden is about to complete the light installation, Borealis, a new addition to Downtown Des Moines’ (DSM’s) growing collection of surprising and delightful features.

Operation Downtown’s Role in Arts + Culture in DSM

Operation Downtown, the organization working hard to keep Downtown DSM safe, clean and beautiful, is taking new steps to ensure a hospitable environment for everyone enjoying our city’s core. Not only are their ambassadors adapting to provide new sanitary measures, safety and pedestrian assistance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the organization is starting to employ arts and culture as part of their mission to beautify our city. This perspective is supported by findings from Bravo Greater Des Moines’ Regional Cultural Assessment which promotes using the arts as practical and exciting problem solvers.

The 8th Street Viaduct is an unusual space that feels like both a rain-proofed open-air patio and an urban vacancy. Although it can be a dark and uninviting place, we saw the need for light as an opportunity for creative problem solving. It is frequently used by city staff and others as a temporary parking area, and people walk across it all day, traveling from one of its adjacent parking ramps to their next downtown destination. Operation Downtown wanted to improve its perception of safety by adding lights, but knew that simply adding utility lamps would not beautify the space. Significant cost was required to establish electrical access at the site, but the fixtures did not need to be a great expense. Recognizing that an artist could make compelling things happen just by designing the way the lights work, Operation Downtown asked Group Creative Services to create an art installation that added light to the viaduct’s unique structure in order to make it feel like a place of beauty and comfort rather than an out-of-sight, forgotten corner of the city.

More than 30 national and local artists applied for this project and three were paid to develop site specific proposals. All had to work within a tight budget and offer vandal resistant plans that would enliven and illuminate the space. Alex Braden, an installation artist and musician from Virginia, had recently completed a motion-activated light and sound xylophone installed in a skywalk, and his work stood out to the jurors. Using the advanced color-changing technology available to durable architectural lights, he hopes to recreate a gently shifting light experience evocative of the Northern Lights. The fixtures will be weather sealed and tamper resistant. Fitted to the viaduct and aimed into the channel-like structure that runs along its underside, the public space beneath will enjoy a soft glow, with different areas of the viaduct transitioning between colors, as if the Borealis itself is hovering beneath the ramp that carries cars along 8th street over the Downtown DSM train tracks. Braden visited with sample lights to demonstrate their intensity and effect in 2018, and enthusiasm from members of the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation was so high that they financially supported the project to help it achieve an excellent effect.


Born in Detroit, Alex Braden’s work has been featured in Hyperallergic, the Washington Post, SPIN, Noisey, and NPR. He shares a space in Northeast Washington, DC with his painter–wife Amy and budding noise–artist–toddler, Quincy.

Downtown Des Moines (DSM) is a growing, vibrant community that offers the energy, sophistication, housing and attractions of a burgeoning city with a brilliant future. It’s also easy to visit with plentiful and affordable street and ramp parking options.