Economy Nature Force Iowans To Reinvent The Arts 2009: Nathan Popps

Economy nature force Iowans to reinvent the arts

Nathan Popp’s eyes scanned the room, pausing at each painting on the gallery’s white-washed walls.
He took a few steps toward one, then changed his mind, heading for another. There was nothing the University of Iowa graduate student hadn’t seen a hundred times over at the university’s art museum, where he used to work as a security guard, but the paintings looked different in their new home at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport. They had more breathing room, and Popp practically inhaled their wild colors and forms. “I was so excited,” he said of his first peek at the artwork he had helped install. The show, “A Legacy for Iowa: Pollock’s ‘Mural’ and Modern Masterworks from the University of Iowa Museum of Art,” marks the first time the paintings have been displayed since the Iowa River swept through the university’s arts campus last summer. It’s part of a new collaboration between the university and the Figge, which has agreed to house most of the university’s 12,000-piece collection until the school re-opens a permanent museum in Iowa City. The university’s dilemma about how to forge ahead is hardly unique.Cultural organizations across the state faced either flood mud last year or the effects of the economic downturn, and many leaders have had no choice but to try to think in new ways. So rather than simply scale back or shut down, some museums and theaters are finding new audiences and developing new programs with different resources. The flooded-out Theatre Cedar Rapids set up shop in a local mall. The Brucemore museum across town established “green teams” among its staff to find the best ways to reduce energy costs. The Iowa Arts Council will soon re-distribute $320,000 in new grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to help preserve arts jobs across the state. The U of I show at the Figge, which opened last month and continues through Aug. 2, includes 22 splashy works by some of the 20th century’s most innovative minds – Picasso, Matisse, Miro and more. For Popp, it didn’t open a day too soon. “I’d gone through about nine months of withdrawal,” the art history student said. “You can look at slides and books as much as you want, but it doesn’t give you the same experience.” The solution may not be perfect – the Figge is an hour’s drive from the Iowa City campus – but it sure beats the prospect of letting the artwork sit in storage, tucked away in a secret warehouse in a Chicago suburb. “People lost their homes and so many things,” orchestra spokeswoman Christy Frost told the Associated Press last month. “But when people see the theater and what happened to it, for many people, it brought them to tears.” Instead of canceling its 2008-2009 season, however, the orchestra staff salvaged what it could, set up camp in an old funeral home and scrambled to find new concert venues. They headed first to Coe College’s 1,100-seat Sinclair Auditorium, which was big enough for the orchestra’s season ticketholders but didn’t have extra space for newcomers. So the staff booked concerts in other places, too – the Brucemore, Iowa City West High School, the Englert Theatre. Almost a year later, the orchestra has new fans it may not have earned in a regular season and a new name that reflects its broader reach: Orchestra Iowa. So even when the Paramount reopens, with a $25 million boost from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and fast-track status from the city council, the orchestra may continue to visit several of its new homes. Museum reaches out beyond community The African-American Museum of Iowa sits on a low patch of riverside land, a few blocks from downtown Cedar Rapids. The flood mucked it up, too, but staffers and volunteers rallied to re-open the building in January. “In times of crisis, the people in the community and the state have shown a willingness to work together,” said the museum’s enterprise manager, Edward Young Jr. The flood prompted staffers to redesign the museum’s permanent exhibit and to find donors beyond the local community. At first, fundraising was easier because the needs were so apparent. But other nonprofits were in the same boat. Charity donations were divvied up to an array of causes around town, and when the economy tanked last fall, funding became tighter still.
“We haven’t lost any donors, but they’re giving less,” Young said, noting most donors tend to be older and sensitive to fluctuations in the stock market. The museum’s strategy to reach out during tough times, rather than simply coast through, was right on target, according to Dana Hines, president and CEO of Membership Consultants, a St. Louis-based company that helps cultural organizations raise money. She’ll talk at an Iowa Museum Association conference May 11 and 12 at Living History Farms.

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