CEDAR RAPIDS — Gerard Estella doesn’t like to be the center of attention.
The musician and producer has been the official artisan-in-residence at Brucemore for the last three years, but it’s a fact he, and the museum, have downplayed. That’s because Estella says he prefers to be behind-the-scenes, using his insights and expertise to build up the other artists and the museum staff he works with.
“My job is to build up the artists, to highlight them,” he said.
Brucemore, the museum and cultural nonprofit based at the historic mansion of the same name, hosts more than 30,00 people each year for artistic events including theater performances in the outdoor Peggy Boyle Whitworth Amphitheater and live music on the expansive, sloping lawn. Estella helps make those productions a reality, among other things such as consulting on marketing.
The partnership grew organically, Brucemore executive director David Janssen said. Estella has a long history with the musician as a founding member of SPT Theatre, which performs there regularly.
The museum decided to call the partnership an “artisan-in-residence” rather than “artist” to leave possibilities open to work with preservationists or other craftspeople with expertise in historic structures and grounds in the future. As artisan-in-residence, Estella lives in an apartment on the grounds, for which he pays rent. The museum doesn’t pay him for his day-to-day interactions and insights, though they do for any performance or production work he does.
Brucemore has a history of working with artistic collaboration
Janssen said working with artists fits perfectly with Brucemore’s mission, because the families who lived there were always involved in philanthropy, including supporting the arts. The mansion, built by Caroline Soutter Sinclair for her family between 1884 and 1886, was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1981 by its final owner Margaret Douglas Hall.
Since then, Brucemore has partnered with various artistic organizations on programming. The house was never meant to be a stagnant building, but an integral part of the community, and such collaborations are part of that, Janssen said.
“For some 30 years, we’ve had a very close link to the performing arts community,” he said. “It’s part of our mission. You want to invest in something that makes the entire area a little bit stronger, culturally.”
That said, making those collaborations possible takes a special kind of expertise.
“This estate was not designed to be used the way we use it. It wasn’t meant for 10,000 people to go through the mansion every year and for another 30,000 to be on the lawn,” Janssen said.
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Enter Estella, who brings his production experience to the mansion. Originally from New York, he moved to Iowa in 1992. He still is involved with SPT, is a partner at marketing company North Forty and owner of GmixEast, an artist development company. He said living at Brucemore helps his creative process on all his ventures.
“There’s a huge benefit to me on a personal level to be here. There’s a huge benefit to me on a community level,” he said.
That benefit comes in everything from finding inspiration in the 26-acre properties landscaped grounds and gardens to interacting with visitors, some of whom stop at the mansion from around the country.
He was once one of those visitors, and he still remembers wandering around the property when former director Peggy Boyle Whitworth, who died in 2013, stopped him to say hello and chat. He’s been working with the nonprofit in some for or another ever since.
As artisan-in-residence, he said his main guiding question is, “How do we look at these 26 acres and make them relevant?”
New show ushers in summer season
Relevance is an important question to him, and to Janssen. Brucemore recently launched its the public phase of its Pride & Preservation Campaign. The organization has raised nearly $3 million of a $5 million goal through grants and leadership gifts. Money will be used for ongoing preservation efforts, including work on the roof and south facade, as well as preservation of historic assets, investment in capital infrastructure and improvements to security and fire initiatives. The organization is seeking donations from the public to meet the campaign goals. Janssen will lead a preservation-themed tour of the mansion July 16 and 24 and Aug. 20 at 5:30 p.m. More information is available at www.prideandpreservation.org.
The ongoing preservation work means the mansions traditional start to summer, the Tahitian Party, was canceled this year. Another event, a Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre show, was also canceled. So, for the first time 30 years, there was no June programming planned. The idea for a new show, “Hello, Summer!” was born. Estella created the ensemble performance with a host of local artists and musicians. Presented at 7:30 p.m. today and Sunday, it features spoken word poetry and music by Akwi Nji, Matt Brooks, Amy Friedl Stoner, Lincoln Ginsberg, Jackson Bartelme, Anna Wilde, Kristin Brooks and more.
As with most of Brucemore’s outdoor summer shows, audience members are encouraged to bring their own chair or blanket as well as a picnic and beverages. Gates open at 6:30 p.m., and the show will go on rain or shine, unless it is dangerous to continue, Janssen said. Tickets are $30 in advance or $35 at the gate.
The theme Estella asked all the participating artists to start from was “relevance.”
“We’re trying to argue that places like Brucemore matter. It’s not just a venue,” Janssen said. “Historic houses in particular and artistic organizations in general in the last decade have had to struggle to defend their relevance ... that a community needs artists, needs creativity, needs entrepreneurship.”
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To interpret those ideas, Estella and his fellow artists step in, ready to welcome summer with a little bit of poetry and song.
• What: Hello, Summer! Season kick-off performance
• When: 7:30 p.m. today and Sunday
• Where: Peggy Boyle Whitworth Amphitheater, Brucemore, 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
• Cost: $30 advance, $35 door
• Details: (319) 362-7375, brucemore.org
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