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HISTORY HAPPENINGS: Stan Wiederspan
Cedar Rapids artist has long thought about the role of art in our lives
By Jessica and Rob Cline, - The History Center
May. 23, 2023 5:00 am
First things first:
We are so grateful to those of you who have sent us ideas and clues and resources regarding the tin of Quaker Oats Rolled Oats we featured in our column last month. We will be following up on those leads and sharing what we discover in June. It is not too late to send any information you might have about these distinctive tins — featuring preparation instructions in multiple languages — to email@example.com.
On to this month’s topic: art.
Around the turn of the 20th century, a group of folks in Cedar Rapids decided to form an art club that in fairly short order became the Cedar Rapids Art Association. Artists like Grant Wood and Marvin Cone would become active members in the early 1920s, and exhibits were held in a specially designed gallery in the Cedar Rapids’ Carnegie Library, foreshadowing later developments in the artistic scene in Linn County.
In the early 1960s, the Art Association acquired the Torch Press Building, a four-story structure at 324 Third St. SE that now houses the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.
It was a good place to house the Art Association’s growing arts collection. “The concrete and steel construction makes the building practically fireproof, which is a necessity for an art center,” said Richard McGinn, the association’s president at the time.
What is an art center?
In 1973, an art professor at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant was hired to be the director of the Art Center.
Stan Wiederspan arrived in Cedar Rapids to take the helm of the organization — and he immediately began to wrestle with what an “art center” might be.
Wiederspan explained his thinking in a recent Oral Histories LIVE! interview at The History Center. The Torch Press Building’s first three floors were gallery space — including a newly designated Grant Wood Gallery on the third floor. So, the Art Center was, clearly, a museum. But what else, if anything, was it?
“At that time, other than paying attention to the arts and doing some exhibits, they didn’t have a particular definition of where they wanted to be,” Wiederspan explained.
But Wiederspan thought it could be more. And he had the building’s fourth floor available to put his ideas into practice.
“We were the Arts Center and what I interpreted that to mean, and what I approached the job for, was we could have exhibits but we could have classes,” Wiederspan said.
“And so we began a lot of classes for adults, and we had an association with the School of Art and Art History from the University of Iowa to fabricate kids classes, and we used all sorts of funky names like Cream Soda Drawing Class or Popsicle Painting, you know, to get the kids going.
“So we turned the fourth floor into studios — had a lot of adult painting activity, some evening activity. And so my concept was that as an arts center, it had to provide services for the community and be part of it.”
In a Sunday, June 11, 1978, in The Gazette, Wiederspan made the case that people do not always appreciate the ways in which the arts are embedded in our lives.
The story said Wiederspan saw Americans as so mechanically oriented that the value of arts generally was misunderstood and unappreciated.
“They just don’t understand the important role the arts play, whether in the everyday items in their house, which were the products of artists, or in the pure forms in a gallery or concert hall.
“We are really literally surrounded by the products of artists. If you removed all that, what would be left?”
That same year, Wiederspan himself would be removed from his job with the Cedar Rapids Arts Center. During the Oral Histories LIVE! interview, he remembered being a bit blindsided by the news.
“Well, we had a meeting and got together to decide what the staff salaries would be, and instead they said, ‘We're not renewing your contract. … We have decided what we need to do, for the future of the Arts Center, is have a director prepared and interested in fundraising,’ which is absolutely correct. That’s what they needed.”
In the end, both Wiederspan and the Arts Center found their way forward, with the former becoming a major contributor to the public art scene in Linn County as well as a much-respected painter and gallery owner, and the latter growing into the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art — eventually taking up residence in the very library building in which the organization had first sprouted.
You can watch the full interview with Stan Wiederspan at historycenter.org/stan.
Jessica Cline is a Leadership & Character Scholar at Wake Forest University. Her dad, Rob Cline, is not a scholar of any kind. They write this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: HistoricalClines@gmail.com