Arts & Culture

Struggling Legion Arts tries to pivot as leader quits

Historic CSPS Hall, the organization's home, won't be sold

F. John Herbert (left) and Mel Andringa are the co-founders of Legion Arts. (The Gazette)
F. John Herbert (left) and Mel Andringa are the co-founders of Legion Arts. (The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The co-founder and long time leader of local organization Legion Arts at CSPS Hall resigned over the weekend amid the organization’s ongoing financial struggles, leaving supporters hopeful the legacy supporting avant-garde artists and art continues.

In an email sent Friday, F. John Herbert said he had decided to “move on” effective this past Sunday after 28 years of leading Legion Arts, which occupies CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, along with co-founder Mel Andringa.

“While I never expected to be here that long, it’s been easy to stay,” Herbert wrote. “It’s been my good fortune, daily, to work with brilliant artists from across America and around the globe … with generous, risk-taking audiences … trusting, helpful agents, and supportive peers … and, of course, a host of outstanding staff members and volunteers.”

Legion Arts cultivated a niche as a venue for alternative audio and visual art and a stage for fringe voices. Its tenure has included renovating a historic “landmark building (CSPS), turning it into a 21st-century arts center, and in the process kick-starting an entire neighborhood,” Herbert noted.

“A long time before NewBo became NewBo, Legion Arts and the Cherry Building were pillars of the neighborhood, and not just for NewBo, but for Iowa, bringing music from around the world you wouldn’t normally see,” said David Chadima, co-owner of the Cherry Building, which is an incubators for artists and entrepreneurs. “I hope with the transition, I hope they can keep the focus on programming and supporting the alternative art scene.”

While Herbert, 67, had previously expressed a desire to hand off leadership, he said he hoped to stay on for another 18 months to two years to ease the transition and pass on information.

He told The Gazette on Monday the organization’s board of directors indicated the search for a new executive director would begin immediately. While members discussed keeping Herbert on in a auxiliary role, it did not seem feasible so he decided to step away.

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“My belief was 28 years of experience needed more time to transfer that knowledge,” Herbert said. “That view wasn’t shared by everyone.”

Legion Arts was upward of $100,000 in debt and owed money to about 25 vendors, Herbert told The Gazette last month. He acknowledged new management and leadership was a good idea to help overcome the financial challenges, but envisioned a more gradual approach.

“I think the transition timeline was a sticking point,” said Matthew Steele, board president of Legion Arts and publisher of the Little Village magazine.

Steele said Herbert indicated he did not support the immediate transition or auxiliary role, but Steele hoped Herbert would change his mind and stay involved. Herbert did not rule out a role in the future.

As part of planning the settle the debt, the board needed to “demonstrate oversight and this was an important part of that — showing the management direction is going to transition, so the timeline had to be adjusted to demonstrate that,” Steele said.

Once the board can assemble a “cash positive” operational plan, it would begin to qualify for different lending scenarios, possibly by mid-November, Steele said.

The business model needs to flip from an “arts presenting organization that happens to have a venue,” Steele said. Running CSPS is an expensive venture, so the plan needs more focus on generating income from retail-rental space and private events.

Neither CSPS Hall or the neighboring Fire House No. 2 building is expected to be sold, and previously announced events will go on as scheduled, Steele said.

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Ben Beeson, box office manager and gallery associate, and Dan Miller, program associate, will continue operations and booking events, Steele said. Several people with close ties to the organization could step in as interim director and be “effective on Day 1 and clean house through quarter four,” before a permanent director takes over, he said.

The board, which is expected to name multiple new members imminently, also will take a more active role in managing the organization, he said.

Andringa, who retired but has remained involved on a part-time basis, said he will serve as a transition consultant. He and Herbert want to protect the Legion Arts name and have asked the organization to change names in the coming months.

“There is a certain desire on John and my part to retain the legacy of what we accomplished in 30 years,” Andringa said. “That said, we only did it with the help of volunteers and staff and other people. We’d probably like to see the organization continue under a new name instead of Legion Arts.”

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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