Some of Iowa’s youngest artists are eager to get back to their work in this pandemic year.
“What this had done to teenagers, to everybody really, is more than what some people think,” David Griffin said one morning last week. “When we started to come back, I was at every rock-band rehearsal, and just the enjoyment, the excitement you could see in their faces. Trying to play music online is just so difficult.”
Griffin, founder and co-director of the nonprofit Eastern Iowa Arts Academy, has been supervising its cautious reopening after months of forced isolation. The slow, uneven pace of pandemic recovery continues to affect the academy’s programs and fundraising efforts.
“It’s difficult for every organization,” Griffin said. “We have three scenarios for the fall because we do not know what’s going to happen. Right now, we are planning more in-person opportunities, limiting the number of kids. If the state tells us to shut down, we’ll go back to our virtual classroom.”
Griffin, 51, is also about to begin his 30th school year teaching music, 26 of them in Cedar Rapids schools. He’s the choral music director at Franklin Middle School. His own continued education, in the form of a master’s degree in administration, led to the academy’s founding in 2007.
“My plan was to find an arts school somewhere that I could be a principal at, or work at,” he said. “But my wife didn’t want to move, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll start my own after-school program.’ ”
Working with some of his students’ parents, Griffin launched the academy as a weekly after-school program at McKinley. The academy’s after-school enrichment program continues to offer classes in art, dance, creative writing and music at schools in the Cedar Rapids and College Community districts.
E Avenue home
The academy gained its own home in 2012, when Charley and Kathleen Litow donated the building at 1841 E Ave. NE that houses its music and arts studio.
“That’s where we opened up another component of the program,” Griffin said. “We have classes there, we have a recording studio.”
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The E Avenue building hosts art classes for adults and programs through the Arc of East Central Iowa for special-needs students. The academy’s staff of seven, three of them full-time, coordinates and plans programs. Professional artists and musicians are hired as instructors for the academy’s seasonal terms.
“We’re blessed to have a staff that’s truly vested in what we do,” Griffin said. “They’re professional artists, dancers.”
The academy works with neighborhood schools to tailor after-school enrichment programs to students’ needs.
“The track depends on the needs of the areas where we go,” he said. “We try to target the low-income areas, but we offer our classes everywhere. It’s depending on the school needs, what the demographics are, the history of the programming there — what works and what doesn’t.”
After-school classes are offered at no cost to students. Programs at the studios are $160 a year for an unlimited number of classes, with financial aid for qualifying families.
Including its adult programs, the academy reaches about 2,000 participants a year. Many students have pursued arts majors in college or otherwise continue their involvement.
“We’re getting to the point now that many of our students are continuing their education in music or art,” Griffin said. “It’s very rewarding for us to see them starting in the fifth grade.”
After the coronavirus pandemic closed the studio’s doors in March, academy staff launched online classes. An Art Bag program distributed more than 400 kits of art supplies for students working at home.
“It’s been so successful,” Griffin said. “It took a lot of work, a lot of time. We offer online classes and workshops, still keeping that connection with the kids.”
In-person programs restarted about three weeks ago in Studio 17, the former Maresh Sheet Metal shop at 907 17th St. NE. Owner Tom Podzimek, an academy board member, donated the space for rock band rehearsals and other art activities.
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“This facility allows us to social distance,” Griffin said. “We’re really spread out. We have really tight requirements. Face masks are required. We’re going to gradually ease back into it while we still offer our online programs.”
Performances by the academy’s youth rock bands, probably its most public face, will still happen at NewBo City Market under “very stringent guidelines,” Griffin said. It’s all part of the organization’s effort to engage young artists.
“The kids have much more time on their hands,” he said. “We really encourage the kids to show us what they did. They can do that on our website.”
Plans continue for the Academy’s two big annual fundraising events, a September golf outing at Elmcrest Country Club and November’s Harvesting the Arts at the Cedar Rapids Marriott Hotel.
“Our success for the year depends on that event,” Griffin said. “At this time, it’s going to go forward as planned. If we are forced to not to have the event, we will have it online.
“We’re still seeking sponsorships for that, keeping in mind we’re not going to appeal to businesses that have been majorly effected by this (pandemic) for donations. Even if we can do 50 to 60 percent of that we normally do, every little bit helps.”
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AT A GLANCE
• Co-directors: David Griffin, Tracy McPartland
• Business: Eastern Iowa Arts Academy
• Address: 1841 E Ave NE, Cedar Rapids
• Phone: (319) 350-1805
• Website: easterniowaartsacademy.org