Eastern Iowa authors, arts organizations awarded $90,000 in NEA grants

Andrew Sherburne - FilmScene - Ped Mall
FilmScene Executive Director Andrew Sherburne in the newly renovated lobby at the theater’s Ped Mall location. — Jason Smith / Little Village

Artists and arts organizations across the U.S. received good news Tuesday, as $33.2 million in grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) were announced. Five Iowa orgs and individuals were among the award recipients, receiving a total of $90,000 in grants.

All five are located in eastern Iowa — two in Cedar Rapids, two in Iowa City and one in Waterloo.

LaTanya McQueen of Cedar Rapids and Melissa Febos of Iowa City were each awarded $25,000 Literature Fellowship grants for creative writing.

McQueen has authored two books, one an essay collection (And It Begins Like This, 2017) and the other a novel (When the Reckoning Comes, 2021). Her work — which often explores issues of race, womanhood and American history — has been published in many of the nation’s top literary journals, and she sits on the board of Iowa City’s UNESCO City of Literature. She currently serves as an assistant professor of English-Creative Writing and African American Studies at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.

Febos is an associate professor in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, and the author of three books: the memoir Whip Smart (2010), the essay collection Abandon Me (2017) and Girlhood (2021), a collection blending investigative reporting, memoir and feminist scholarship. Her next book, an intimately drawn memoir titled Body Work, is set to debut in March.

The NEA awarded a $20,000 media arts project grant to FilmScene, Iowa City’s nonprofit cinema. FilmScene plans to put the funding towards its diversity initiatives, including the Reel Representation, African Diaspora and Pride at FilmScene series, as well as its educational courses for local students and community members. They plan to establish a film appreciation club for high schoolers, and launch a new Community Collaborations series focused on using film to spark conversation and action.

“Funding from institutions such as the NEA allows us to continue to present diverse and challenging works as we endeavor to reexamine the established film canon through our many initiatives,” said FilmScene Programming Director Ben Delgado in a press release. “Working directly with our community, we are able to be a home for transformative experiences through cinema.”

Two $10,000 “Challenge America” grants were given to Iowa nonprofits: Cedar Rapids’ Orchestra Iowa and Waterloo’s North End Cultural Center. The grants are designed as an entry point for small orgs seeking NEA support, and that work to “extend the reach of the arts to populations that are underserved.”

Orchestra Iowa, which will celebrate its 99th anniversary this year, describes itself as one of the oldest symphony orchestras in continuous operation west of the Mississippi River. In addition to concerts (such as the trios showcase premiering in at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts on Friday), Orchestra Iowa offers opportunities for community members to learn a new instrument, participate in a chamber ensemble or choir, and experience music therapy.

The North End Cultural Center is relatively new, established in 2012 to stage a festival celebrating the history and vibrancy of Waterloo’s North End neighborhood. Admission is free to the annual summer fest, which features live music from local acts, dance, poetry, guest speakers, food, arts and crafts, and more.

“The North End of Waterloo has been the historical starting point for many of the ethnic groups that came to Waterloo,” North End Arts and Music Fest organizers recount on their website. “It was the entry point of the Italians, the Greeks, the Russians, the Germans, the African Americans, and many others. It was in fact the home of the very people that loaded the train cars, slaughtered the hogs, built the tractors, laid the bricks, and drove the nails that helped Waterloo rise from the grasslands of Iowa.”

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“With the recognition of this history the real planning of our Festival began and as we progressed we were fortunate to find people that could see the vision, it’s importance, and had the skills to produce such an event.”

Many Orchestra Iowa concerts are held at the historic Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. Orchestra Iowa fund-raised to help rebuild the theater after the flood of 2008. — Jav Ducker/Little Village

The National Endowment for the Arts is an independent federal agency established by Congress and President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to support the arts and encourage Americans to pursue creativity. Threats of defunding have haunted the agency over the decades, most recently from President Trump, but Congress has continued to include NEA funding in its budget. President Biden proposed increasing the NEA’s budget for fiscal year 2022 to $201 million, hoping the grants can help “rebuild the creative economy” after the pandemic, as well as “advance racial equity, access, and climate justice” through the arts.

The U.S. Senate confirmed Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson as the NEA’s new chair in December.