CSPS uses the pandemic as an opportunity to focus on better serving artists and the community

Mirrorbox Theatre presents 'The Parking Lot'

through Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m. -- CSPS Hall parking lot; $40 per vehicle

The Czech-Slovak Protective Society building (CSPS Hall). 1103 3rd St SE, Cedar Rapids. — courtesy of CSPS

The decision to use a space as an incubator for the arts and as a cultural gathering place for a community is often difficult, especially in a trendy neighborhood. Despite the fact that it is exactly these kinds of spaces that make neighborhoods attractive to restaurants, shops and other businesses, they frequently deal with razor-thin margins and high costs, making it a struggle to stay afloat.

CSPS (then known as the Drawing Legion and later as Legion Arts) moved to CSPS Hall in what is now the New Bohemia neighborhood of Cedar Rapids in 1991, and as it has evolved over the years, has been a consistent home for the arts and artists. It hosts new theater works, visual art galleries and live music performances from local and international artists alike.

In mid-March, when the pandemic grabbed hold of the live events world and shut everything down, CSPS had an impressive lineup of performances that unfortunately had to be postponed, including Robyn Hitchcock, Fred Eaglesmith and the Iguanas.

CSPS quickly pivoted to presenting online performances from local artists for its “Boundaries” series (co-presented by Dead Coast Presents), which included performances and readings by, among others, Elizabeth Moen, Alizabeth Von Presley, Caleb Rainey and Lyz Lenz.

However, as the pandemic rages on, CSPS has been forced to find creative ways to maintain its presence in the community as well as its financial viability. Taylor Bergen, the interim director of CSPS, answered some questions via email about the path forward.

What do you consider to be CSPS’s role in the community?

Our mission at CSPS is as follows: CSPS builds community through the presentation, advocacy, and support of the arts, music and theater of our time. To me, that means that CSPS is an organization for artists, offering help and support at any level of their career, whether that be as simple as a date on their tour or helping a theater company commission work, we have the ability to help artists do their work. By doing this, we create a more bold and cutting edge cultural scene which leads to a stronger, more inclusive, empathetic and vibrant community.

CSPS Hall, Wednesday, Oct 9, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

In what ways has the pandemic — and more recently the derecho — impacted operations at CSPS and that relationship with the community?

The pandemic has forced our organization to think of ways we exist independently of our physical location. With the diligent work of our staff, and help of partners (Dead Coast Presents) we were able to shift our visual arts and performing arts programs online rather quickly with virtual exhibitions and our online series “Boundaries.” Since August, we have had limited galleries hours and focused our exhibition strategy into dual presentation, digital and in person, with slight changes to the way work is presented digitally to how it is ultimately hung in the gallery space.

With the recent derecho, we have had to adapt the space to maintain social distance at all times, but fulfill a community need of wifi, charging stations and a place to cool down. We were fortunate to be one of the first places back with power, and since we have had limited damage, we opened the doors quickly for a place to cool down, charge devices and use our wifi.

The effects of the derecho are still felt here in CR; while most people have power, we still have many people come to us for use of our wifi (I currently have four students in our commons gallery, socially distant and virtual learning), and this really speaks to the fact that while our mission extends beyond our walls, sometimes the best way we can serve our community and artists in their time of need is with CSPS.

What interesting or creative changes have you made to the CSPS business model since the pandemic hit?

In addition to embracing digital presentation, we’ve embraced the idea of “crowd sourced” art through our Instagram-based virtual portrait series. I think something along those lines will become a regular part of our programming. I also think the pandemic has changed the way we think about the relationship between presenter and artist. Artists, more so than presenters, have been crushed by this. The question for us becomes how can we as an arts organization foster their recovery quickly as soon as it is safe.

Wednesday, Oct 9, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The pandemic has taught us that we can control our expenses, elevate artists and the ways they express themselves, pay artists fairly, and as a result be really competitive in grants and corporate giving, which in turn helps the artists we serve. It has also really caused us to examine how and why we spend money on things that aren’t related to art, a task we had already been working through, and either eliminated that spending all together, or shifted it to artistic-based spending to bolster artists services or programs.

How have you adapted your plans for the future of CSPS for the duration of the pandemic and beyond?

We’ve had to adapt a few times, first moving all spring shows to fall, then to winter and now to spring. But beyond that, we’ve adapted to really carefully examine how we support artists with the way we present their work. Whether that’s professional photos of their show in our galleries, or an audio/video recording of their performance, I think going forward we will only become more intentional in the ways we support artists when they work with us.

How can people help and support CSPS?

Please visit where you can make a tax deductible donation on our home page or sign up to volunteer with us for gallery hours and our outdoor show with Mirrorbox Theatre this fall!

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