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Iowa City area arts leaders determined to move through uncharted waters

'Moments of crisis bring out the best in us sometimes'

The Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City, shown on April 1, remains closed during the coronavirus pandemic. Iowa City a
The Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City, shown on April 1, remains closed during the coronavirus pandemic. Iowa City area arts leaders on Wednesday hosted a webinar announcing cancellations for this summer and early fall, noting it’s difficult to plan for the future when so many questions persist about coronavirus closings. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Hancher won’t be making a Big Splash, and North Liberty won’t be dishing up Blues & BBQ this summer.

Both signature events were put on hold this week in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

But six leaders participating in Iowa City’s State of the Community Webinar: Arts & Culture on Wednesday afternoon are working to figure out the best ways to connect with the audiences, artists and regions they serve during these uncertain times.

“These moments of crisis bring out the best in us sometimes,” said Andrew Sherburne, interim executive director and co-founder of FilmScene, as well as the REFOCUS Film Festival now in the works. “Resiliency is a theme we’ve seen play out many times, and I hope that continues.”

Collaboration will be key in helping the arts return, added Chuck Swanson, executive director of Hancher Auditorium.

“These are very challenging times for everybody,” he said. “In some ways, it reminds me of 12 years ago in the flood, but it’s such a different situation. ... The success of how we got through the flood is the collaborations, the partnerships, the empathy that people had for us, and now we need to remember to have that for each other, because we are all in this together.

“We don’t know what the answer is, but we’re in it together.”

Postponing the Big Splash, set for Aug. 14 to 16, was the right move, Swanson said, even though it broke his heart.

Four years in the planning, the outdoor arts extravaganza also included high-wire performances by The Flying Wallendas and a water parade on the Iowa River. It will be rescheduled, just not in the near future.

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“There are a lot of worse things happening in the world,” Swanson noted. “This gives us something more to look forward to.”

As with any event cancellation or postponement, many moving parts have to be navigated, including contacting donors, patrons and artists, whether it’s at Hancher, the Englert or any other host venue.

Safety is the factor driving these decisions, the presenters said. Planning for large gatherings like the Blues & BBQ event is especially daunting.

“How do you plan for 17,000 people in a park three months from now, not knowing what that’s going to look like,” said Nick Bergus, communications director for the city of North Liberty.

One possibility is creating smaller, more intimate gatherings rather than large festivals with “sweaty kids running around and people jammed in the food lines,” he said.

Part of the problem with moving forward is that “nobody seems to know when” reopenings might happen, Swanson said, noting that Hancher belongs to a wider network of peer presenters who are in touch with each other and with expert advisers.

In discussions with them, “the common theme is that it’s going to be a new norm — it’s going to be a new world for all of us,” Swanson said. “We’re going to have to put together processes and procedures from front of house to the backstage area that really make our audiences feel comfortable and our audiences to feel safe, our artists to feel safe.

“We all know, too, that audiences are ready to come back. People are tired of baking bread, they’re tired of playing cribbage and watching the movies on Netflix. There’s pent-up demand, but at same time, I think people are going to be very cautious about coming back. I want us to able to create an environment that people can trust.

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“We’ve got a big job ahead of us,” Swanson said. “When I think about the financial implications of seating, is it every other row? I don’t know how people would feel in terms of the social distancing. Does everybody have to wear masks when they come, do we have to take everybody’s temperature? And then, I don’t want to think about opening then having to close down again. That’s a real scare.

“There’s lots of questions, but at this point, the answers are really hard to come up with.”

Cleanliness and safety are major concerns, too, for the Iowa Children’s Museum in Coral Ridge Mall, which serves vulnerable populations and has been closed since March 16. Online activities have ramped up, but some staff members have been furloughed.

“We have every intention of bringing them back,” Executive Director Jeff Capps said. “These were hard decisions to make, but for long-term sustainability, the right decisions, too.”

Unlike the Englert and Hancher, which bring in largely national and international artists, the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts serves local performers, from its resident City Circle community theater troupe to school concerts and choral groups.

“Most of the groups that we’re working with are not artists who are attempting to make a living on what they’re doing — they’re amateur groups primarily,” Managing Director Evan Hilsabeck said. “So at least that has a different kind of cushion, but it certainly does affect the organizations that they work with and the folks that they serve.

“The vast majority of the people that cross our stage every year are school kids. We are the home for a lot of school concerts here in the spring that are not going to happen. You wonder what the impact of that is on a generation of kids who will start to go for a time without the music experiences and the theater experiences that many of us were fortunate to have growing up. And what the future looks like for the kids in our community is always a challenge.

“We are really well-placed in Iowa City, in Coralville, in this area, to bounce back in a meaningful way, because we have a community that is already supportive of the arts, that is behind the mission of these organizations here today and many others not on this call,” Hilsabeck said.

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“I feel very fortunate for all groups large and small here in the community, and I start to think about how we as a real bright spot in Iowa can help serve small arts organizations in small communities around the area and around the state, to make sure that the arts bounce back in rural communities and small organizations, as well.”

While supporting the arts with donations is crucial anytime, but especially now, when revenue streams are shifting, people can offer vital support in other ways, said Andre Perry, executive director of the Englert Theatre and Mission Creek Festival.

“It’s not always like, ‘Hey, can you give this amount of money?’ It’s finding a way to stay connected,” Perry said.

“Maybe right now they can’t give dollars, but they can share programming that’s happening on their social media or send an email to their friends or to their family network — anything that keeps this art and culture network that we have in the area on top of mind,” he said.

“There’s a true need in terms of shelter and food — they’re real and we need to address them — and it’s also remembering the part of the spirit that drives the community that happens in the arts — to make sure that stays in all the conversations, as well. ...

“Some of that will happen with these beautiful celebrations that will happen in six months, 12 months, 18 months. Whenever they happen, they will keep us excited and keep us pushing forward.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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