Government

Cedar Rapids' Legion Arts struggling with over $100,000 in debt, trying to chart future path

City leaders look for ways to continue the cultural mission at CSPS Hall

Members of the Canadian folk band The Duhks perform Jan. 19, 2014, at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids. Co-founders F. John Herbert and Mel Andringa created Legion Arts as a venue for diverse voices that didn't have many other options to be heard. (The Gazette)
Members of the Canadian folk band The Duhks perform Jan. 19, 2014, at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids. Co-founders F. John Herbert and Mel Andringa created Legion Arts as a venue for diverse voices that didn't have many other options to be heard. (The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Deep in debt, leaders of Legion Arts — an arts and culture organization based at CSPS Hall that helped set the tone for the popular New Bohemia District that grew up around it — are working to revive the organization, pay off creditors and infuse new blood to continue the mission of presenting progressive contemporary arts.

Co-founder F. John Herbert has been working with community leaders, including City Council member Dale Todd and others who have not been publicly identified, on a plan to repay debt “north of $100,000” to 25 artists and others through loans and fundraising.

“These are all legitimate bills we owe to people; we just haven’t had the cash flow to pay,” Herbert said. “In the past couple of months, our challenges became more widely known. A number of community leaders have stepped up and affirmed the value of Legion Arts (and) are working with us on a plan to address our indebtedness, help oversee the leadership transition, and bolster the managerial and administrative side of the organization.”

CEDAR RAPIDS - CSPS Hall began life as a cultural hub for the city's Czech and Slovak community. More than 125 years later, it has become a cultural hub for the world.

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Herbert said the debt has accumulated largely in the past 12 to 18 months. While many had known of Legion Arts’ struggles, the matter accelerated in the past four to six weeks. He said he hopes to have a plan in place in the coming weeks, and to have the debts paid.

He pointed to greater-than-expected costs of maintaining the nearly 130-year-old CSPS Hall, which Legion Arts owns, and losing grant funding and not getting other grants as factors.

With a staff of two full-timers, two part-timers and Herbert, who said he doesn’t take a salary, tasks such as seeking sponsorships have fallen off and the organization could do more with promotions, he said.

Mirrorbox Theater, which has been producing four shows a year at CSPS Hall, has outstanding balances owed it from sponsorships and donations earmarked for the company, as well as shares of ticket sales, said Cavan Hallman, its director and founder.

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While he has been able to fulfill stipends for his actors and designers, the shortfall has inhibited Hallman’s ability to scale up his young company.

“For us to continue producing and growing, we absolutely need the funds owed to us,” he said. “My No. 1 priority has to be the health and success of my company. I am very invested in seeing Legion Arts and CSPS succeeded and us succeed and alongside them.”

The city of Cedar Rapids has withheld its annual allocation of hotel-motel tax revenue earmarked for Legion Arts/CSPS. Most recently, the organization received $17,000 and had sought $35,000 for the latest cycle, which was awarded Tuesday.

“They are having some troubles,” Mayor Brad Hart said. “Until we know they can right the ship, we are going to hold back the money.”

Matthew Steele, publisher of Little Village, was named Tuesday as the new chairman of the Legion Arts board. He has been a board member since last summer, but the board hadn’t met for months, he said. Some members had dropped off it, with at least one saying he is not a fundraiser and didn’t know how he could help.

Steele acknowledged the challenge previous boards have faced with trying to provide oversight for an organization run by its founders — and equally that a founder now reports to someone who’s been in the position for only a matter of days.

His plan is to audit the organization’s finances and engage with others on ways to restore Legion Arts. While some have suggested Legion Arts sell CSPS or the adjacent restored fire house, the goal is to secure the buildings’ future.

“I do think we will come through this,” Steele said. “I don’t see Legion Arts folding. It has been an anchor in NewBo, and it has anchored the neighborhood that grew up around them. It’s too important. I have a lot of confidence they will come out of this stronger.”

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Todd, who has been a liaison for the city on the matter, said, “I think it is an organization that at the end of the day will come out of this stronger with a more sustainable vision and plan for the future. This is a roadblock we’ve all seen coming. We will get over it because of the value that Legion Arts has brought to the community. Everyone acknowledges that.”

Herbert, 67, and Mel Andringa, 76, who are artists by trade, founded Legion Arts in 1990 as a venue for diverse voices that didn’t have many other options, such as gays and lesbians, international artists, feminists and others.

The NewBo area was in much rougher shape then — a far cry from the trendy, vibrant district it has since become.

As the organization grew — particularly with a $4.8 million award for the purchase and restoration of CSPS Hall through the state’s I-JOBS program after the 2008 flood — Andringa and Herbert were pushed into unfamiliar roles as property managers, landlords and businessmen overseeing a $650,000 to $700,000 annual budget while producing 100 shows a year.

CSPS has a main stage with seating for 200 people, a black box theater with seating for 70, four galleries and three retail store fronts occupied by Analog Vault, Next Page Books and Frond Shop and Studio.

While Herbert remains the driving force behind Legion Arts as the main curator, Andringa largely has retired although he continues to fill in as needed and remains connected.

“I think John and Mel are understandably and rightfully protective of their legacy,” said Leighton Smith, a former board member who left before the financial woes began. “I hope we as a community can help it find a way to flourish.”

Andringa has concerns about how the legacy of the organization will continue, and casts doubt on those who think the “simplest thing is to get rid of John and Mel.” But it’s not so simple to replace their curation niche — to be looking for what’s missing, he said.

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“What happens to the programming that for 30 years has filled in the gaps of cultural needs of the community?” Andringa asked. “That is what is at risk. We fill in the gap of the spectrum of opportunities a city like Cedar Rapids is entitled to and should have. We are a flexible organization and when someone else in the community steps up and says, ‘We are going to do what you are doing,’ we say ‘Thank you.’ We will move over and find what is not being done” so that next gap can be addressed, too.

Herbert agreed it is time to bring in new leadership, particularly someone who could assist with the managerial duties. He foresees transitioning out over the next year or two while a new leader “affirms the values of Legion Arts and transitions them to a new era.”

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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