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Embracing the arts in Iowa City area as true community-building organizations

(Photo courtesy of the Englert Theatre)
(Photo courtesy of the Englert Theatre)

Andre Perry doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing the need for centers like The Englert and FilmScene in downtown Iowa City. “We’re arts organizations, but, at our core, we’re community-building organizations,” said Perry, executive director of The Englert, Iowa City’s last historic theater that each year hosts a variety of offerings, from Grammy award-winning musicians and national touring acts to local theater productions. 

Along with Andrew Sherburne, cofounder and interim executive director of FilmScene in Iowa City, Perry is leaning into the final phase of a $6 million campaign to help the two nonprofits strengthen, grow, and evolve. The campaign, aptly named “Strengthen Grow Evolve,” is helping to sustain existing programming and infrastructure of the two organizations; renovate and, for FilmScene, create new space for those programs. 

Overall, the campaign aims to help the two organizations look to the future with new programs and new opportunities. ‘There’s an interest here and an audience’ Being part of a community that supports the arts in the way Iowa City does, especially for a community of its size, is a rare find, Perry said. 

A graduate of the University of Iowa with a master’s degree in nonfiction writing, Perry could see early on that Iowa City had a passion for the arts. When he talks about Iowa City as the greatest small city for the arts, he’s believes it because he’s experienced it. The University of Iowa functions as an “incubator” of sorts, he said, by strongly encouraging and supporting creative practice. Students perform their art for community audiences while they’re earning their degrees. 

Some, like Perry, decide to make a home in Iowa City and contribute to the growing arts community. “Over time,” he said, “people in Iowa City began to have a really strong appreciation for the arts and the artists. So now for the last few decades — and decades into the future — we have a community that is supporting arts on and off the university campus.” “The Iowa City area is an interesting market because it’s not huge, like Minneapolis or Chicago, where there’s just so much money and you can go do and see what you want, but there’s an interest here and an audience,” Perry said. “It encourages people to be a little bit more entrepreneurial and try things that might be a lot tougher to do in a bigger city.” 

For example, Perry and a friend started a festival in Iowa City when they were students at the university. That festival grew to become the annual Mission Creek Festival, a four-day festival celebrating all of the arts with live performances and readings. “It was possible to do here,” he said, “because there’s an arts community that supports it.” Embracing good ideas Like Mission Creek Festival, FilmScene, founded in 2010 by Andrew Sherburne and Andy Brodie, was the result of people thinking about what was missing in Iowa City — and knowing how well it would be received. 

“I moved to Iowa City from the Twin Cities, where I grew up,” Sherburne said. “In the neighborhood I was living in after college, in Minneapolis, I could walk to seven independent movie theaters any day of the week. It just became a part of my life, part of the fabric of living, to go to the movies.” Iowa City, he said, was missing something, and he wanted to help fill that void. 

After talking with many people over several years, he and Brodie decided to create FilmScene, a nonprofit film house. The decision to make the leap, he said, wasn’t difficult. Echoing Perry, Sherburne lauded the city as one that not only supports the arts but supports ideas. “I knew when we started this that we had a city that is rare in that it’s a community that supports good ideas from anywhere,” Sherburne said. “You don’t have to be already established in the arts community to come up with a good idea people will support. Iowa City, as a whole, really embraces people with good ideas.” 

Attracting and keeping talent in the area Helping the arts community grow is good for overall community growth and success, said Eric Engelmann, executive director of New Bohemian Innovation Collaboration (NewBoCo) in Cedar Rapids, a nonprofit organization supporting new businesses in Eastern Iowa, particularly those involved in entrepreneurship, innovation and technology. Having a strong arts community makes the area more attractive to new business, he said. 

“I think when people are deciding when and where to build a business, they’re usually putting their family there and it’s going to be a long-term commitment to a community,” he said. “People are looking for all the amenities — what do they have for my family, what can we do. I think the Corridor has an incredible array for its size — we punch way above our weight class when it comes to live performances and accessibility.” 

Even with more and more business being done online — or maybe even because of it — having a vibrant arts community is vital in 2020 and beyond. “People can work from home in many jobs, and as people suddenly got really comfortable working from home, the ability to be able to work for anyone from anywhere became very apparent,” Engelmann said. “Having more options in a community makes it more attractive to those looking for a home.” 

“Having a place where people can unplug from the screen and go and do something — or even be a part of it — is a key part of attracting and keeping talent to this area,” Engelmann said. “I think in today’s world, when you can pull up entertainment and arts and music on your phone anytime you want, the opportunity to experience it in person is special,” he added. “I think the Corridor has done a great job of fostering that accessibility.” To learn more about and support the Strengthen Grow Evolve campaign, go online to strengthengrowevolve.org.

Work is underway to renovate The Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City as part of the “Strengthen Grow Evolve” joint capital campaign being conducted with FilmScene. (photo courtesy The Englert)

The Englert Theatre

221 E. Washington St., Iowa City

englert.org

strengthengrowevolve.org

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