Hancher, 'arts beacon of Iowa,' faces uncertain fate

As UI phases out funding, venue must examine its mission

Hancher Auditorium Executive Director Chuck Swanson is photographed July 17 at the performing arts center on the Univers
Hancher Auditorium Executive Director Chuck Swanson is photographed July 17 at the performing arts center on the University of Iowa campus. The university has announced that Hancher will transition from general fund support to self-supported funding by 2024. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hancher is holding no events for the public in the venue. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Eight years after the floods of 2008 ravaged the University of Iowa’s arts campus, a new and more modern Hancher Auditorium emerged on higher ground to begin its second act of bringing the world to Iowa City.

In the four subsequent seasons, the glimmering $176 million performing arts center proved it could survive — and even thrive — after the calamity by presenting luminaries including renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and classical pianist Emanuel Ax, who helped choose Hancher’s Steinway concert grand piano.

But now darkened by the coronavirus pandemic, Hancher — and along with it, performing arts in Eastern Iowa — face the biggest challenge since the floodwaters.

As Iowa’s public universities look to shed tens of millions of unprecedented losses brought on by the pandemic, the Iowa Board of Regents this week will review financial plans that envision weaning Hancher from the UI general fund support within three years.

Eventually, that would save the university about $1.5 million a year by not covering the salaries of Hancher employees.

“Hancher really sees itself as the whole state,” said Jerry Yoshitomi of Oxnard, Calif., a worldwide independent arts organization consultant through his company, MeaningMatters. “And so when we start chipping away at the sources of funding, they have to make decisions about possibly reducing services to the state or if they can bring those major resources, artists, to Iowa. I just don’t know if that was recognized when the decision was made.”


For nearly 50 years, the university has been Hancher’s largest annual donor, said Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s executive director. And now Hancher’s staff will have to make up the shortfall, estimated at $200,000 the first year, he noted.

But in a year already full of uncertainties with the COVID-19 pandemic that closed Hancher’s doors in March, no one is sure when the doors will open again to welcome audiences — let alone the students and cross-campus disciplines that led former UI President Willard “Sandy” Boyd to call Hancher the university’s largest classroom.


Across the country, Swanson has heard artists and industry peers refer to Hancher as “the Lincoln Center of the Midwest.” Ashley Wheater, artistic director for the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, deemed it “the arts beacon of Iowa.”

“That reputation didn’t just happen,” Swanson said. “That reputation happened because of the opportunities that Hancher had because of this relationship that we had with the university, in terms of the funding.”

The doors eventually will reopen, and the shows will go on. But to what extent will depend upon safety protocols and the scope of behind-the-scenes work Hancher will be able to resume.

Scrambling to replace Hancher’s largest financial source adds yet another hurdle. The $1.5 million to be phased out also is the amount Hancher now brings in through fundraising.

“That means we have to double our intake, and this is a tough time right now for the arts,” Swanson said, acknowledging that “the university has to make some decisions. It’s a tough financial sort of time. It’s a difficult time for everybody, and decisions definitely have to be made. ...”

Besides phasing out general fund support for Hancher, the UI is laying off employees, freezing salaries, cutting pay and not filling some positions.

“The university is very generous in providing us the building and covering our utilities,” Swanson said. “But we have operations expenses that we’ve covered through rentals, and now we’re not renting the auditorium, either, so the timing, too, is really difficult — very difficult. And it’s going to be done over a few years, but still, that’s a hard number to absorb, if not course-changing in a big way.”

He said cuts may have to be made in the number of events Hancher can bring to Iowa City; the high profile of the performers it books; the depth of Hancher’ outreach for students from kindergarten to college; its outreach into the community; and its tradition of offering $10 tickets to UI students for most shows, and $5 tickets for school matinees that bring younger students to the auditorium’s 1,800 seats.


“That’s all yet to be determined,” he said. “There’s so many unknowns for everybody right now.”

Hancher’s budget ranges from $5 to $6 million, depending on the year’s offerings, Swanson said. Programming runs about $3.5 million, operations range from $400,000 to $500,000 and salaries about $1.5 million, for the 24 full-time staff, with 14 student assistants on 10-month salaries and about 150 hourly student workers as cashiers, ushers and stagehands. Until now, the payroll and benefits have been covered by the UI’s contribution.

Swanson learned more details of the UI’s planned cuts in a June 22 phone call. In a July 10 news release, UI President Bruce Harreld said he is “confident Hancher Auditorium can maintain its standing as national leader among university performing arts centers while transitioning slowly to being self-sustaining. Hancher leadership and the entire team is first-rate, and I look forward to their continued prominence within our community, the state and region.”

Major players

Since the first Hancher Auditorium was built in 1972, then rebuilt after the 2008 floods with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Hancher has brought the biggest and brightest stars to Eastern Iowa: Marcel Marceau to Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gene Kelly to American Ballet Theatre, Boston Pops to the Chicago Symphony, Johnny Cash to Ravi Shankar, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Ella Fitzgerald, Isaac Stern, Rudolf Nuryev in “Sleeping Beauty,” Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Victor Borge, Ben Vereen, Tony Bennett, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, Stomp, Joan Baez, Itzhak Perlman, Van Clibern, Aretha Franklin, Judy Collins, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin and Martin Short, Diana Ross, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth — and on and on, including Riverdance and Broadway touring shows, from “A Chorus Line” and “Miss Saigon” to “The Book of Mormon” and “Kinky Boots.”

Add to that list the many collaborations and performances by the Joffrey, from two new settings of “The Nutcracker” in 1987 and 2016 to the groundbreaking 1993 Joffrey/Prince rock ballet, “Billboards,” and the 2007 “River to River” series of free outdoor performances across the state, celebrating Hancher’s 35th anniversary.

Hancher has commissioned 114 new works, beginning with the Joffrey’s “The Heart of the Matter” in 1986, continuing through planned commissions by Step Afrika! and the Kronos Quartet contemporary string ensemble, to be funded through a recently announced $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant.

This commissioning tradition makes Hancher a major player on the world stage.

“Hancher is really nationally at the top of the list,” said Yoshitomi, who also is the facilitator of the 17-member Major University Presenters Consortium, to which Hancher belongs.

“I think (Hancher is) probably the leading presenter in the country for cumulative commissions over their history, so they’ve always been a national leader. The directors of Hancher have been active in the national presenting association and NEA panels.

“But I think true to form, our Midwestern presenters — and in this case Hancher and Chuck Swanson — are always modest compared to what we might find on the coasts. So the accomplishments are really done in an impressive but a quiet way, and that’s why this decision by the university was so surprising to me,” Yoshitomi said.


He also cited “the impact of bringing to Iowa work that would never even be thought of or considered if not for inventiveness of Hancher,” from the Joffrey commissions to the diverse work by Black artists and artists of color, shared not only in Iowa City, but across the state and beyond, drawing national and international attention to the university.

Of the 17 members in the Major University Presenters Consortium, only ASU Gammage at Arizona State University doesn’t have direct support from the university, Yoshitomi said.

Educational aspects

Yoshitomi also envisions the pending budget cut affecting Hancher’s educational mission, if the model needs to move toward making money.

“You end up having to book more profitable events at the expense of those things that might be more mission-driven or have a message. Seeing the Soweto Gospel Choir changes my life,” he said. “I walk away with different view of the world and Africa.

“I might instead go to Hancher and see a comedian — not taking away from the comedians of the world — but it may not be as socially impactful or educational as we might have in some other cases. So what happens is, they’ll have to look at the dollars first, as opposed to looking at the educational impact and Hancher’s mission.”

Currently, Hancher asks what the artists can do for students and the greater community when negotiating contracts. And when the artists come to Hancher, many fan out into schools, university classes and community centers to hold educational residencies or spark conversations about their work.

Other programs bring together diverse disciplines, as in the case of Rinde Eckert’s Hancher commission, “Eye Piece.” The Iowa City native and UI graduate, now based in New York, created this theatrical exploration of vision and vision loss by working with students, doctors and professors in the UI’s institute for Vision Research.

He focused on the stories of patients and their families, creating empathy across the academic and performance realms, and including UI students and community members onstage in its 2010 debut.

The benefits go beyond the classroom, Swanson said. “Students are here to learn as much about the world as possible, and we really want to try to help prepare them for life after graduation.”


They also can learn about the world around them, in Iowa City. Swanson pointed to world-renowned bass player Rufus Reid’s five-movement jazz suite, “Quiet Pride.” Performed at Hancher in 2018, the work reflected the life and artistry of Elizabeth Catlett, who came to the UI to not only further her studies in sculpting, but also to study drawing and painting with Grant Wood. In 1940, she became the first African-American woman to earn an MFA at the UI.

A residence hall on campus bears her name.

Spending a week on campus, Reid connected with “hundreds” of students, talking about the process of creativity, Swanson said.

“Creativity is a very important part of their work,” he added. But what blew him away is that virtually none of the students knew who Catlett was. “Some of them even live in that dorm,” Swanson said. “But by the end of the week, all of those students knew who Elizabeth Catlett was. That’s learning.”

The Joffrey has extensive outreach programs in Chicago and in its schools, so creating learning experiences at the UI is a natural extension of that work, said Wheater, the company’s artistic director.

“We have to always think of going beyond a performance,” he said, whether that means giving a lecture to 500 people, holding open rehearsals or giving hundreds of Iowa children the opportunity to perform beside professional dancers in “The Nutcracker” ballets.

“For some people, there’s a mystery of not understanding the art of ballet,” Wheater said. “When you start to give people access to it in a different way, and not just a performance, where they’re sitting there and are expected to take something away, it’s like education. You’re giving them a real deep insight into how we put things together, how we create our art form, and therefore, it becomes more and more engaging.”

He is dismayed by the university’s decision to phase out financial support for Hancher.

“It’s extremely worrying that the University of Iowa decided to make that decision,” Wheater said. “Man and woman do not survive on one diet alone, and I think that what is so special about the University of Iowa and its campus, is having all of that academia, all of that great medical, great sports and great art.

“Trying to make up a shortfall is really difficult, and you can be really creative with different things, but you need a backer, and I hope that the university will realize — I think they do realize — the value of Hancher and all the incredible work that Chuck Swanson has done. He has brought the world to Iowa City. What that does in turn, enriches the place that you live, and we know that when people live in a thriving artistic community, it’s a better quality of life.”


The arts survived the Great Recession in 2008, Yoshitomi noted, and Hancher survived the floods of 2008. Wheater hopes it will survive this challenge as well.

“When we get through this (pandemic), we are going to be starved for culture. We’ll need to feed our souls again.”

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