Racehorses and city were Dana’s passions before Des Moines
New York City transplant Mo Dana, the executive director of the new Downtown Events Group, says after organizing eight Des Moines Arts Festivals, she still doesn’t know anything about art. Nor does she claim to be an expert on multicultural events, snow-sculpting, gardening or outdoor leisure, all events the DEG plans to launch in 2006. However, with the help of experts in those areas, coupled with her own fiercely competitive nature, the former horse rider and trainer plans to “move Des Moines up on the entertainment scale.”
You had a 30-year career working with horses before you came to Des Moines. What was that experience like?
I grew up in Virginia and spent most of my adult life in New York City. I turned professional in 1968, at the age of 15, and traveled all over the country, getting paid to ride other people’s horses.
How did you have time for school?
I had tutors a lot and I went to a boarding school where I only had to be there two days a week. The instructors would work with me around the clock when I could be there. I would get caught up, and then off I would go again. I didn’t have time for college.
Was it hard on you as an adolescent to have such a fast-paced life?
I was pretty burned out from traveling so much when I left the juniors circuit. I thought that I wanted to get out of riding, but one of the people who I rode for was Paul Mellon (wealthy philanthropist and trustee of the National Gallery of Art), and he sent me to his racehorse trainer and he taught me how to ride races. After a couple of years of that, when every friend I knew was in a full-body cast at one point, I decided it would be safer to go back to the hunters and jumpers, and I did that professionally until I came here in 1997.
You put the equestrian world behind you, just like that?
Because that (horses) was all that I had done, I wanted to see if I could do something else. Really, I had said, from the first day, I don’t want to get to the end and not know if I can do anything else. After Christopher Reeve had his accident, my brother from Des Moines called me and asked me, “When are you going to stop?” I left New York and drove out here white-knuckled. I had no experience outside the horse world and no education to speak of, but I decided I would see if I could make it in the real world.
How did your interest in the arts develop while you rode horses?
People who own very nice horses own very nice art collections. I learned early in my career that if I liked what they liked, they liked me better.
Is that why you were drawn to art when you came to Des Moines?
When I moved here, I volunteered at the Des Moines Art Center’s Art in the Park. When the opportunity came up to be director of the Des Moines Arts Festival, I had really no background or anything that could qualify me, but I had a lot of really nice letters from a lot of really important people.
And you didn’t have much time to put that first event together, did you?
I had nine months. If I had known then what I know now, I would never have said we could do it.
Do you think you were more determined to make it a success because you didn’t have the background for planning an art event?
I’m always pretty determined, and I’m very competitive. I’ve competed my whole life, and I can’t turn that off. If it’s difficult to pull off, then I want to do it. It’s no fun to do things that are a sure thing.
Is that the attitude you took when the opportunity arose to do even more events with the new Downtown Events Group?
No. I would say that I’ve learned to play a safer game these days, and I think that the Downtown Events Group is a safe bet. I’ve been talking about these events for a couple of years, and I know we’ve done enough research to know there is public and corporate interest for these events.
How is a non-Iowa native able to feel so strongly about making the state and the city of Des Moines a better place to live?
I always planned to leave the horse industry at some point, and I said, whatever I end up doing, I want to be involved in the community where I live. Because I traveled all the time, I went my whole life without knowing any of my neighbors, and I really wanted to live somewhere where that would change. Iowa is a great participatory sport. If you want to participate in where you live, Iowa is the best place to do it.
Is that why you won’t you go back to New York?
When I started this job, I still planned to go back to New York after a couple of years and do something similar, but the more I stayed here, the more I liked it. It caught me by complete surprise. I woke up one day and I thought, I’m not ever leaving. It was really funny when I had that revelation.
When was that?
It was just a couple of years ago. I wasn’t really thinking about leaving, but I was never thinking about staying. Although I have the same fondness for the city as I always had, I’m convinced that I could not have an occupation living there that I would enjoy as much as this. New York is a great spectator sport and a fun place to live. But we’re certainly going to move Des Moines up on the entertainment scale.