National Czech & Slovak Museum reopens with trio of exhibits

Curator Stefanie Kohn hangs panels for the new exhibit #x201c;Czech Heroines: Prominent Czech Women Past and Present,#x2
Curator Stefanie Kohn hangs panels for the new exhibit “Czech Heroines: Prominent Czech Women Past and Present,” at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in southwest Cedar Rapids on May 28. Three new exhibits will greet visitors when the museum reopens to members on Monday. If all goes well, the museum will reopen to the public June 22. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Robots and art will be engaging in lively conversations when the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library opens its doors to members on Monday. And if all goes well that first week, the general public will be invited to explore the exhibits beginning June 22.

The museum, sitting sentinel over Czech Village in southwest Cedar Rapids, generally opens new exhibits one at a time, but with the facility’s closure during the COVID-19 pandemic, three spring and summer exhibits are opening simultaneously. This presents an added bonus for visitors, said Sarah Henderson, the museum’s K-12 learning specialist.

While seemingly different, they speak to each other in their collective complexity, she said.

• “Czech Heroines: Prominent Czech Women Past and Present,” Anderson Gallery, through Sept. 7. Culled from a series of 50 art panels, the 15 works highlight the rulers, politicians, artists, scientists and athletes who left their mark on national and international realms.

The project is inspired by the 100th anniversary of the ratification of women’s right to vote in Czechoslovakia in 1920, and the 200th birthday of Bozena Nemcova (1820 to 1862), writer of the final phase of the Czech National Revival. This 18th- and 19th-century movement sought to revive the Czech language, culture and national identity being lost to foreign influences in the urban areas. Many writers, like Nemcova, turned to the Bohemian countryside, customs and folklore for inspiration.

• “Artists as Activists,” Petrick Gallery through Sept. 20. Featuring 14 works by internationally known contemporary artists responding to political and cultural oppression, it’s the first time many of the pieces have been shown together.

Guest curator Charlotta Kotik of Brooklyn, N.Y., an independent art curator born in Czechoslovakia and a former head of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum, collaborated with Stefanie Kohn, curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum, to create this one-of-a-kind exhibition.

“She worked with me to find artists from around the world who are either reacting to some kind of oppressive regime in their own country and/or have been jailed because of their art,” Kohn said. “That still is actually going on now in the 21st century.


“Depending on the government that you live under, your art might be cause to make you get thrown in prison or be hit by the police or have restrictions put on your movements,” Kohn said. “That has happened to all of the artists in the exhibit. They’re from all over the world — there’s only one who is Czech, which is David Cerny. The rest are from China, Cuba, Palestine, Kashmir, and there is an African American artist in the exhibit, as well.”

The 14 works include paintings, sculpture, digital images from a graphic novel, photographs, a performance art video by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, on loan from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and a self-portrait by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, made out of Lego bricks. He’s one of the most famous artists in the exhibition, Kohn said, adding that he’s “been in trouble with the police in China many, many times throughout his artistic career.”

Using their art is the way they can best express themselves as activists, Kohn said.

“It might not be pleasing to the officials in charge,” she said. “It’s a piece of activism that is very powerful and can reach the world over, and the only harm it’s doing is to the artist him- or herself. They might be beaten or thrown in jail, but it’s not a threat to the rest of society.”

• “A Century of Robots: From Capek to Now,” Smith Gallery through Oct. 25. This mixed media collection celebrates the 100th anniversary of Karel Capek’s 1920 play, “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),” in which the term “robot” was used for the first time to describe artificial humanoids, a concept that dates back to ancient times and mythology.

The exhibit includes toy robots and robot-inspired collectibles from television and movies, as well as historic items on loan from Collins Aerospace, and two interactive art pieces made by Metro STEAM Academy students at Metro High School.

Henderson spent the past school year working with Metro and Iowa BIG students on robotics, from designing and coding to building.

“I really wanted to draw the connection between contemporary art that could be about complex issues, and STEM education and robotics specifically,” she said. “We were constantly drawing connections between the two exhibits.”

The museum and Metro have been partners in education for three years, she noted, fueled by the efforts of Metro teachers Matthew Tonelli, Shannon Ellis and Matthew Secl.


“The initiative has tried to show the community that STEM education and the arts go hand-in-hand. The design process is an artistic process no matter what you’re designing.

“And so I really hope when people visit the museum and they walk across the hall from the robotics exhibit to the Artists as Activists, they can see that connection.”

Henderson is especially thrilled to see the international artists’ work showcased at home, after seeing some of them in London during a semester course in arts business, rolled into her graduate work in museum studies.

“It blows my mind to think that I had to go all the way to London to see some of these artists, and now they’re coming to Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” she said. “It’s incredibly exciting for me, because I’m a born-and-raised Iowan, and one of the reasons I’ve always wanted to go into this career path is because I believe that the arts had a place everywhere.”

But growing up in rural Muscatine County, she said she had little opportunity to study or engage with the creative arts in school.

“So this is exactly what I always hoped for — that these large-scale artworks about international issues and humanity would end up in my own backyard.”

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If you go

What: New exhibits: “Czech Heroines: Prominent Czech Women Past and Present,” June 15 to Sept. 7, Anderson Gallery; “Artists as Activists,” June 15 to Sept. 20, Petrick Gallery; “A Century of Robots: From Capek to Now,” June 15 to Oct. 25, Smith Gallery

Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids


When: Open only to Museum Members: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 15 to 20, noon to 4 p.m. June 21; if all goes well, the museum will open to the public June 22

Admission: $10 adults; $9 ages 65 and older; $5 active military, veterans, students; $3 ages 6 to 13; free for Museum Members and ages 5 and under; masks required; reservations recommended at (319) 362-8500

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