MARION - After 25 years of pairing art and artistry, Craig Campbell has a simple formula for booking regional favorites and nationally known musicians. Pick up the phone and offer them money.
A similar revelation has helped broaden ticket sales, as well, at Campbell Steele Gallery, an intimate venue that has been changing the face of night life in uptown Marion for 25 years.
Six months ago, Campbell added an online option for ticket sales, and that move has added a whole new layer of audience members for concerts in a space that envelops its 70 to 80 patrons in art.
Campbell, 61, and his wife, Priscilla Steele, 64, purchased the century-old building at 1064 Seventh Ave. for $70,000 in the fall of 1991. The couple were designing, building and painting scenery for Theatre Cedar Rapids at the time. They continued to do so for two more years, still finding time to turn their vision and Campbell's construction skills to their new two-story purchase, a blank canvas of 7,500 square feet.
"That's a lot of building," Campbell quipped last week.
The couple quickly turned the first floor into a retail art gallery; a studio for Steele, whose primary focus is printmaking; and a stage for Liars Theatre, a professional troupe Campbell founded with local actors Nina Swanson, Scott Schulte and the late Terry Dyrland. Partitions went up on the second floor to carve out a home for the couple and their three young children.
Their continued efforts - and about "three or four-and-a-half times" the purchase price in renovations - have turned the two floors into gorgeous spaces where art lives, breathes and works inside rustic brick walls lined with Steele's prints downstairs and Campbell's woodworking artistry upstairs. Everywhere you look, you see sheer beauty, creating a unique ambience in the local music scene.
"Marion was a gap-toothed smile in storefronts in '91," Campbell said.
And while businesses come and go, he and Steele have stuck it out, even though they tried to shutter their gallery doors last year.
Wanting to devote more time to visiting their children and grandchildren out East, they listed their building for sale or lease in late summer/early fall last year. On the market just six days, it reeled in three interested parties, including one who wanted to lease the first floor.
The couple had an epiphany before inking a deal: It would be like giving up a child they could no longer afford to raise. The building was a part of their lives; what they couldn't afford or visualize was moving to the expensive areas where their children now live - Charlie in Cincinnati, Maggie in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Willa in Rhode Island.
"It was a 'Dorothy in Oz' sort of thing," Campbell said. "You have to take that little bit of a trip away from this, so that you can turn around and look back at it and say, 'That's right where I belong.' We have everything right here, so we had it on the market six days and took it off.
"We didn't accept the offer, apologized to the Realtor, and the next day, I had a hundred times the energy for my work here. ... That's when things started to feel good."
They have closed the retail portion of their gallery. It's now open by appointment. Steele loves "not being married to retail hours," and with that, the freedom to come and go.
"It's great to visit (the kids) and come back to a home that finally reflects us," Steele said.
They've not only changed the face of their historic building, they've also helped change the artistic face of Marion. During the '90s, their gallery blossomed to feature more than 100 artists from local to international renown.
The couple also worked with Victoria Quinn-Stephens and the Marion Chamber of Commerce to launch the Marion Arts Festival in 1992. Now directed by Deb Bailey, it's hailed as one of the top 25 art festivals in the nation, the top show featuring 100 artists or fewer, and the best one-day event in the country.
Seeing something they started flourish on a national level "gives you confidence in the fact that there is a standard of excellence in other people's minds - that you're not all alone," Steele said.
She's also excited to see art grow around Marion, from Giving Tree Theater to niche boutique shops and the growth of music at the revamped Ramsey's Wine Bistro.
Campbell, a Cedar Rapids native, and Steele, New Jersey native, married in 1974 and moved to this area in 1986, so Steele could attend grad school at the University of Iowa. While they now live in Marion, Campbell looks beyond their ZIP code to define their community.
"Our community is our customers," he said, "and our customers are from all over the place."
They're coming now for the venue's Music in the MUD! (Marion Uptown District) series, launched amid the Floods of 2008. The first concert in the gallery's silver anniversary season has already sold out, with fans clamoring to see Davina & the Vagabonds, a jazz/blues band from the Twin Cities that rocked the place last February.
While the focus remains on national acts, nestled in the middle of the lineup is regional favorite Bob Dorr & the Blue Band on April 1. Campbell said it's one of the local bands that even though people can hear them free or for a smaller cover charge in other venues, fans will happily pay a higher price to hear them at Campbell Steele Gallery.
He calls Music in the MUD "an extraordinarily satisfying endeavor," adding that the new series is "a major move forward."
"It still reflects the essence of what the goals were in the first place," of providing a home for their family and a home for art in their ever-expanding community.
WHAT: Music in the MUD! 25th anniversary concerts (more to follow)
WHERE: Campbell Steele Gallery, 1064 Seventh Ave., Marion
SATURDAY (1/23): SOLD OUT Davina & the Vagabonds, 7 to 10 p.m., $30
FEB 5: Sonny Knight & the Lakers, 7 to 10 p.m., $25
FEB. 12: Hot Club of Cowtown, 7 to 10 p.m., $25
FEB. 19: Danielle Nicole, 7 to 10 p.m., $20
FEB. 27: Flagship Romance, 7 to 10 p.m., $15
MARCH 18: Samantha Fish, 7 to 10 p.m., $30
APRIL 1: Bob Dorr & the Blue Band, 7 to 10 p.m., $20
APRIL 9: Selwyn Birchwood, 7 to 10 p.m., $25
APRIL 15: Sena Ehrhardt, 7 to 10 p.m., $20
APRIL 22: "Journeyman," a tribute to Eric Clapton featuring Shaun Hague, 7 to 10 p.m., $20
APRIL 29: Connie Evingson, 7 to 10 p.m., $25
TICKETS: (319) 373-9211 or Campbellsteele.com