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Legion Arts: Building Community

August 17, 2011

By Rebecca Gross

The original CSPS Hall (top), built in 1891, has been restored by Legion Arts. Below, the building during the renovation process. Top photo coutesy of Legion Arts; bottom photo by Mel Andringa

For a multidisciplinary presenting organization dedicated to contemporary, cutting-edge art, Legion Arts made an unusual decision when it was looking to expand. Instead of looking for sleek new digs, they looked no further than the historic building they had been renting space from since 1991. Sure, the CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had been severely damaged by flooding in 2008 and lacked basic conveniences like central air-conditioning and adequate bathrooms, but it had something other buildings didn’t have: history. “Our focus is on contemporary art, but I think one of the things that always appealed to us was that we were doing our work in a building that had very deep connections to the community,” said John Herbert, executive director and co-founder of Legion Arts.

CSPS Hall was constructed in 1891 by the Czecho-Slovak Protective Society, and was used as a social hall and meeting place for local Czech and Slovak immigrants. On the one hand, the society served a practical financial purpose: families contributed money each week that could be used to help members who had suffered misfortune, from lost jobs to physical accidents. “It was kind of an insurance policy,” said Herbert. But there were also activities like polka parties and Czech language classes, traditions that Herbert said immigrants “wanted to preserve for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren.” In this way, the society “was also a kind of cultural insurance in that it was helping people make the transition from one culture to another.”

This cultural synthesis is something that Herbert says rings familiar with Legion Arts. In the past ten years, international artists have increasingly been presented by the organization, and invited to show their work in Cedar Rapids. “We feel that our mission has evolved to incorporate that inner-cultural dialogue that has always been in the DNA of the building,” Herbert said.

Although Legion had been renting its office and gallery space in CSPS for more than a decade, the organization’s leaders had been thinking about purchasing the landmark building when the floods of 2008 hit. As rain soaked the Midwest, the Cedar River crested its levees, submerging ten square miles of Cedar Rapids. Much of the city’s downtown area was affected, and cultural organizations such as the Paramount Theater, African American Cultural Center and Museum, and the public library suffered extensive losses.

Legion Arts, which rented the upper floors of CSPS Hall, largely escaped major water damage. But the 11 feet of water that inundated the building all but destroyed the gallery, printing company, and secondhand store that inhabited the first floor. “Everything had to be torn out of the ground floor, down to the bare walls and beyond,” said Herbert. “We were able to really provide resources and help with the recovery of our neighborhood because we didn’t have to go through that yearlong process of replacing all of our equipment and all of our information and all of our computers.”

Top, the historic firehouse, built in 1916, as it appeared at the time of its construction. Below, the firehouse as it stands today. Top photo courtesy of Legion Arts; bottom photo by Mel Andringa

Without the financial burden of repair, Legion Arts was also able to move forward with their purchase of the building, which was completed in 2010. The newly renovated CSPS Hall is scheduled to be unveiled on August 26.

When the new CSPS Hall re-opens for business, the organization hopes to expand its community reach even further. The new building will feature an in-house coffee shop, and has been retrofitted with handicapped-accessible features—not an easy undertaking when dealing with a 19th-century building. Business hours have been extended, and a ground-floor gallery has been added to the two existing gallery spaces that the not-for-profit has long maintained on the upper floors. And yes, the facelift has even included the all-important central heating, cooling, and modern bathrooms.

Legion Arts has also enhanced its offerings for artists. A ground-floor arts incubator will serve as office space for six resident companies, and a slew of professional classes for artists will target topics such as marketing, budgeting, and career planning. Using grant funds from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the organization has also restored the firehouse adjacent to CSPS Hall. The firehouse, itself a historic structure from 1916, will offer living quarters and workspace for visiting and resident artists, and will be connected to CSPS by a courtyard.

In terms of its role as a community resource for local artists, cultural organizations, and ordinary residents, Herbert said that Legion Arts is again merely following in the footsteps of the original Czecho-Slovak Protective Society. “[The building] was from the outset a multicultural space with deep community orientation and a multidisciplinary focus. It accommodated everything from graduation parties to labor union rallies to election speeches to music and theater and dance…. We think [CSPS Hall] will function as it did for many years as a real vital community center for people not only coming to experience art activities, but for people who live in the neighborhood.”

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