F. John Herbert, who helped transform the NewBo area and Iowa’s arts scene, steps down after leading Legion Arts for decades

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

Legion Arts co-founder F. John Herbert announced on Saturday he is stepping down as executive director of the Cedar Rapids nonprofit after 28 years. His resignation took effect on Sunday, Sept. 29.

The arts organization, which operated the historic CSPS Hall in the New Bohemia District, started planning for a transition to a new generation of leadership two years ago, as Herbert, then 65 years old, and Legion Arts’ other co-founder Mel Andringa, then 74 years old, planned to retire. The original plan called for new leadership to take over Legion Arts in spring 2020 — although Andringa had already largely retired from Legion Arts to focus on his own artwork — but the arts organization’s precarious financial situation led to a revision of the plan, with the transition taking place in fall 2019 instead. After years of struggling financially, Legion Arts is currently around $100,000 in debt.

Herbert had been expected to remain with Legion Arts as its artistic director. His announcement on Saturday took many people by surprise.

“While I never expected to be here that long, it’s been easy to stay,” Herbert said in an email to colleagues. “It’s been my good fortune, daily, to work with brilliant artists from across America and around the globe … with generous, risk-taking audiences … trusting, helpful agents, and supportive peers … and, of course, a host of outstanding staff members and volunteers.”

“As the organization looks to identify new leadership, and renew its mission for a new era, it’s a suitable time for me to seek new opportunities.”

Little Village publisher Matthew Steele, who was elected chair of Legion Arts’ board of directors on Sept. 3, said the organization is in the process of hiring interim directors focusing on management, development and artistic programming. Permanent directors are expected to be in place early next year, according to Steele.

All planned events at CSPS will occur as scheduled, Steele said.

The roots of Legion Arts go back four decades, when Herbert, a writer from Ohio, met Andringa, a performance and visual artist from Michigan, in New York City. Together they launched The Drawing Legion, a performance art company. The two eventually moved to Iowa City, where Andringa taught art at the University of Iowa, while Herbert pursued a Ph.D. in American Studies.

The two moved to Cedar Rapids in 1991. The renamed Legion Arts found a new home in the historic Czech-Slovak Protective Society building, giving new life to the structure that had opened its doors 100 years earlier.

Visual artist Jane Gilmor met Herbert and Andringa in Iowa City. Gilmor told them to come up to Cedar Rapids after she rented the second floor of CSPS and realized she had more space on her hands than she needed.

“They moved in and immediately started bringing in alternative arts and performance that really hadn’t been seen,” Gilmor said. “They’re both visionary artists who take risks … and they’ve supported the neighborhood in unbelievable ways.”

“There was something very appealing about Cedar Rapids being a town that didn’t revolve around the university and didn’t have that degree of self-consciousness about itself,” Herbert told the Gazette in 2017. Also appealing, he said, was the lower cost of living in Cedar Rapids.

Herbert and Andringa brought in artists from all across the country and around the world to perform in Cedar Rapids. After the 2008 flood, Legion Arts bought CSPS Hall to ensure the future of both the organization and the building.

John Fahey, Joan Baez and Odetta Holmes are among the legendary musicians who have performed at CSPS Hall. The organization also brought in Ani DiFranco, Andrew Bird and Vic Chesnutt to perform in the early stages of their careers.

“It was hard to get people to come to this neighborhood,” Herbert told Little Village earlier this month. “I think partly due to our presence here it’s now really blossomed as an arts and cultural district, which is terrific.”

“We were the first to define this 3rd Street as a cultural corridor, which many years later has really blossomed into New Bohemia and Czech Village. In addition to presenting really interesting and first-rate artists, we’ve always tried to find ways to connect those artists to the community.”

One of Legion Arts’ missions has been to merge local art and contemporary social issues. In the mid-’90s, it helped organize the first pride festival in Cedar Rapids. Legion Arts has also worked to ensure women and artists of color are adequately represented in the programming, Herbert said.

The nonprofit has always centered around people “who have not been the central narrative in broader culture and artists who work on the margins,” Steele said.

“Legion Arts will continue emphasizing art that’s difficult to find elsewhere,” he added.

Despite decades of artistic success, Legion Arts was struggling to survive, running up large debts. Owing money to artists and arts organization that have performed is “the most painful” part of its money problems, Herbert said.

A large part of the problem stems from Legion Arts also owning the CSPS building. It’s been more work than they expected to manage the building and the tenants within it, Herbert said, especially without having someone on staff dedicated solely to this task. The building’s expenses — like utilities, repairs and flood insurance — have also been considerable, Herbert said.

In addition, Legion Arts lost certain grants it had relied upon in previous years, and last year, lost money in GO Cedar Rapids’ failed newbo evolve festival, according to Herbert. With its small staff size, the nonprofit was only able to engage in limited fundraising.

In recent months, a group effort by area nonprofits and the City of Cedar Rapids to support Legion Arts has coalesced.

“Mel and John have done the impossible, and in this context, the current financial issues feel very solvable,” Steele said.

Although Herbert is leaving Legion Arts, Andringa plans to serve as a consultant on artistic matters.

In his email, Herbert said, “I’ll be in and out of the area as I make plans. After a pause, I expect I’ll be eager to deploy my curatorial and editorial skills again. (Those are hard habits to break, I’ve found.)”

He concluded, “As I move on, the friendships I’ve made over three decades will continue to sustain me, so please do keep in touch.”

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