CORONAVIRUS

Amid pandemic, Legion Arts stages comeback

'Lifeblood of NewBo' pays down most of its debt

A visitor on Thursday watches a video art piece by Tony Orrico in the main gallery during August's First Thursday open g
A visitor on Thursday watches a video art piece by Tony Orrico in the main gallery during August’s First Thursday open gallery reception at CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE in Cedar Rapids’s NewBo District. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Legion Arts, the pioneering arts and culture organization that owns CSPS Hall in NewBo, had a “vibrant and exciting” spring season planned before COVID-19 swept across the world.

The not-for-profit in March canceled its slate of shows that included acts from different regions and countries overseas, at the time envisioning only a temporary pause before picking things back up by May.

The persistent pandemic had other plans, forcing the organization’s programming to move exclusively online for months — dealing yet another blow to a respected yet troubled organization that already was $100,000 in debt and facing an uncertain fate.

“We felt like we were really turning a corner going into the spring with some exciting programming,” said Taylor Bergen, Legion Arts’ interim executive director. “We had a few concerts in January, February, March that were either very close to sold out or sold out.”

As the organization’s home in CSPS Hall reopened Thursday evening amid a still spreading coronavirus, Bergen said Legion Arts is making headway on paying vendors and looking for new ways to flourish as he remains at the helm while the search for a new leader is on hold.

Legion Arts made a “huge dent” in its debt before the coronavirus prompted closures, Bergen said, and now owes under $20,000 to vendors.

Bergen, who works with a marketing staff member as the only employees, said some workers were furloughed before Legion Arts received a CARES Act loan for $23,700 and also got upward of $30,000 more through other grants.

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Part of the other funds includes fourth-quarter allocations from the city’s hotel-motel tax revenue stream, which the city doles out to nonprofits in a three-year competitive grant cycle. The Cedar Rapids City Council voted in October to release $17,000 to Legion Arts after council members withheld it last August as the organization struggled to get a grip on its financial woes.

While Bergen said those funds are only a portion of the organization’s roughly $500,000 annual budget, the money helped primarily cover some operational expenses, like property taxes, accounting services and overhead.

“We’re still working through some of our bills, but we’re in a very, very good spot where we have paid down the overwhelming majority of our debt and are looking to build the reserves to be able to hire more staff,” Bergen said.

Founder’s connection

For nearly 30 years, Mel Andringa and F. John Herbert were at the helm of Legion Arts, moving their Drawing Legion performance art company from New York to Iowa City and eventually to Cedar Rapids in 1991. In what is now an anchor for burgeoning NewBo, they renovated the century-old Ceska-Slovanska Podporujici Spolku, or Czech and Slovak Prudential Society’s community center.

Herbert stepped down as executive director at the end of September 2019. Andringa, producing director, stayed on to organize the archives, retiring at the start of 2020. However, he retains a seat and a vote on the Legion Arts board as a founding director.

He also keeps an optimistic outlook for the future of an organization he and Herbert poured their art and soul into for three decades.

“We had a great run,” said Andringa, 76, who has an art studio in the nearby Cherry Building.

Among his most proud CSPS accomplishments are 10 years of bringing world music to Cedar Rapids through the Landfall Festival in September; “really significant” AIDS programming in the early 1990s to raise the community’s awareness of the disease; housing the Gay and Lesbian Resource Center in the Firehouse next to CSPS, and organizing Red Ribbon balls; “In the Spirit,” a program addressing the spirituality of artists; gaining national attention with the first show that brought artists from the Middle East to Cedar Rapids during the Gulf War; and raising the profile of women musicians and artists.

“I think sometimes the visual arts component of Legion Arts was underappreciated because people treated it kind of like lobby art to the events there. But the fact is, the visual arts programming was in many ways as strong as the music and theater and dance programming — and all of that was John’s work.”

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The components that may be retained moving forward are not what he considers the legacy of the efforts he and Herbert put forth.

“Legion Arts, which is the organization we founded, is transitioning to a new name and a new entity,” he said. “To that degree, the legacy of Legion Arts is whatever that track record of 30 years is. What it has going forward is a new board of directors and a new acting director and new programming. We don’t really have anything to do with that. ... They have their own priorities.”

Andringa is happy to see the First Thursday Art Walk gallery receptions returning as it did this week, and is hoping others will discover what CSPS has to offer.

“I support the programming,” he said. “I want to see, however, that the people who come to the events see new faces. They’re not just there to remember the past — they’re there to look for what the future of the organization is going to be, so I want to see some new faces there.”

A new start

Eager to see the building reopen, Legion Arts board member Susan Millar, 56, of Cedar Rapids, was on hand Thursday to greet guests and check their temperatures as they entered.

“It has been my main place to go in Cedar Rapids — where I find my people, where the most interesting things are happening in the city,” she said. “And CSPS Hall is the lifeblood of NewBo.”

Opening the doors Thursday night, then from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays is “a start,” she said.

“It’s fun to have the doors open again. We have all of our safety precautions. It’s fun to have human bodies coming in and out, and I hope people will come down and see this new show,” she said.

In addition to in-person gallery exhibits, Bergen said there will be some live performances or viewings outside of CSPS Hall to encourage social distancing.

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“We know it’s a difficult time for everyone, but arts organizations here locally like us … all really need your support,” Bergen said.

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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