Education

Hancher begins reimagining new school year amid budget cuts, pandemic, postponements

University of Iowa withdrawing $1.5 million in annual support for performing arts venue

Often likened to the shape of a ship, Hancher Auditorium is charting new courses for connecting with students and audien
Often likened to the shape of a ship, Hancher Auditorium is charting new courses for connecting with students and audiences, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the phased withdrawal of $1.5 million in funding from the University of Iowa over the next three years. The plan is to have Hancher transition from general fund support to self-supported funding by 2024. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Background

In a June 22 phone call, Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson learned of pending budget cuts at the University of Iowa, part of which would affect Hancher. Then in a July 10 news release, the UI announced its proposal for moving Hancher Auditorium to a self-sustaining unit, withdrawing $1.5 million in annual support by phasing out university funding over three years. The expected withdrawal was $200,000 in fiscal 2021, all of which is a blow to the performing arts center already reeling from closures and cancellations since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What’s happened since?

Hancher Auditorium, often likened to the shape of a ship, is steering in new directions, with Swanson and staff at the helm.

They are busy re-imagining Hancher’s performing, learning and funding opportunities.

While they’re still in the planning phase of ways to make up the $1.5 million annual shortfall before the university funding runs out, they haven’t reached out to sponsors and supporters yet. Swanson is heartened by the outpouring of support from people after the cuts were made public this summer.

“People have been very kind, very concerned about how we’re going to make this happen,” he said. “We haven’t really done any sort of fundraising pitch or development drive. That’s part of what this work plan will be. I want to study and do the best job that we can internally, to prepare ourselves for what the best (plan) will be, and to get the staff involved — the people who really do the work. I think that’s the best approach ever.”

Along with the financial factors, this year is unlike any other for Hancher, in light of the pandemic putting live presentations on hold. Fortunately, the building sustained no damage during the Aug. 10 derecho, Swanson noted.

“We’re going to be 50 years old in 2022,” he said. “Never in Hancher’s almost 50 years of history have we ever been dark in the fall. Even during the flood years we presented, (with the motto) ‘Can’t contain us.’ ”

And yet, with planned programming of live shows canceled or postponed, Hancher has found a way to keep the lights shining brightly.

Among the new initiatives, the building is living up to its reputation as being the university’s largest classroom, by turning the main Hadley Stage and smaller Strauss Rehearsal Hall into performing arts classrooms. Floors in both spaces have been marked with squares in which dance and music students can physically distance themselves while honing their crafts.

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“The reality is that the dance department found out the first week of classes that they needed more space for their classes,” Swanson said, adding that Hancher “jumped at the chance” to collaborate.

Hancher now is hosting about 14 classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and until noon Friday, after which the music students are stepping into the spaces. All areas are cleaned between classes, in keeping with pandemic best practices.

That first week of dance, Swanson said he “had so much fun. I went and spoke at every one of the classes at the beginning, because I wanted the students to understand not only the fact that we were happy to do this, but I wanted them to have a little Hancher history.

“I think part of this school year starting, everybody’s been so uneasy and on edge. It’s tough, not just for students, but for parents and faculty at the university. So I wanted to make sure that the warm, generous welcome came to all of these students over their first class at Hancher.

“But then I also mentioned that Rudolph Nureyev performed in the first season of Hancher. And (later) Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp and American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet — I wanted them to have a history of how important dance has been at Hancher, and hopefully inspire them to think that, ‘This is something that I could do someday.’ ”

This new classroom use “makes the entire staff happy,” Swanson said. “They’re used to working hard, rigorous hours. So in addition to this work plan, now we can find ourselves welcoming students to Hancher for this semester and giving them the experience and the inspiration, added to their class. When you saw them stand on that Hadley Stage and look out into that beautiful auditorium, there’s nothing better from an experience of education than to think big, and to think, ‘I can climb to the highest and really achieve success.’ ”

Audiences aren’t being left in the dark, either.

Hancher is bringing the physical world of art to the online realm, beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday, with the virtual world premiere of “Stono,” from Step Afrika! The presentation falls on the anniversary of the Sept. 9, 1739, insurrection in which 20 enslaved Africans marched from the banks of the Stono River in South Carolina toward a promised freedom in Spanish Florida.

A panel discussion will follow, looking at the piece, the history behind it, and the ongoing work for social justice. Among the presenters is Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague.

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The viewing is free, and registration instructions are posted at Hancher.uiowa.edu.

Hancher is the lead commissioner on a larger work from this company, which showcases the African American percussive dance tradition of “stepping.” “Stono” is the first event from this extended collaboration, which will include subsequent online projects, ending with a live performance of “Drumfolk” at Hancher in 2021.

More special programming is in the works, too, with announcements to come.

“What Hancher tries to do is be a spark of goodness, and a spark of good stuff — an inspiration in this tough time of beginning the semester,” Swanson said. “We’re a shining star there, and I am just so happy about that. That’s what we’re after — looking for those rays of sunshine.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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