This Saturday, April 20, FilmScene and the Englert Theatre unveiled the steps toward a new vision: “building the greatest small city for the arts in the America.”
The outer lobby of the Englert Theatre was filled with notecards hanging from balloons, filled with statements from community members on why they find the arts important. Additional cards were available for attendees to add their own thoughts. The implication was clear: The Strengthen • Grow • Evolve campaign is intended as an outgrowth and fulfillment of the values of the Iowa City community.
The auditorium was nearly full for the announcement, which got started more than 15 minutes late, building a buzz of excitement through the crowd. I’m not sure what I expected from a mid-afternoon event that promised free fro-yo, but the number of children in attendance surprised me. Again, whether by coincidence or design (many were the families of board members), the ideas of community values were reinforced, a reminder that these organizations unite the city in many ways.
Amid a wash of performances and pageantry, from a spoken word set by Cedar Rapids’ Akwi Nji to magic by Iowa City darling Nate Staniforth, and a full-blown march from the Englert to the new FilmScene location at the as-yet-incomplete Chauncey building (accompanied by the brass band Grand Avenue Ruckus), the two organizations outlined their ideas for a unique partnership rooted in mutual respect and growing toward fostering more of the same in the Iowa City, and eventually Eastern Iowa, arts community.
“Unique” is a loaded word, but representatives from both the Englert and FilmScene, speaking with Little Village ahead of their announcement event, emphasized that their extensive research had not revealed any other organizations attempting what they have in store.
“We really see us working together in this way as a template, a stepping stone,” said Katie Roche, development director at the Englert.
So what, exactly, do these two Iowa City institutions (FilmScene celebrated five years last year and the 107-year-old Englert Theatre hits 15 years in its current incarnation this December) have in store for the community?
At the base of the Strengthen • Grow • Evolve initiative is an ambitious capital and programmatic campaign that Englert and FilmScene began running together a couple of years ago. The big kick-off event on April 20 was, Roche explained, the start of “phase three” — the “public phase” — of the initiative. It began with a developmental “leadership phase” — meeting with community leaders, other area arts organizations, social services representatives and educators to determine the feasibility of their idea and the likely community buy-in (both tangibly and conceptually). Phase two, the “quiet fundraising phase,” consisted of one-on-one meetings with potential donors, both from their own patron lists and from names suggested by phase-one contacts.
The organizations are fundraising jointly, splitting nearly everything brought in by the campaign equally between the two groups. Roche noted that, perhaps surprisingly, everyone they approached was not just open to the idea of a joint donation, but grateful. Avoiding the extra energy expended in having to navigate multiple asks from different organizations, Roche said, was value added for their donors.
A large chunk of the funds raised through this campaign — more than half of their $6.5 million total ask — is tagged for building renovation. Both the Englert Theatre and FilmScene’s Ped Mall location need extensive work. That’s the Strengthen stage of the project. And thanks to that early, quiet fundraising, it’s gotten a head start. So far, early efforts have brought in $1.6 million from community members and businesses and a $1 million contribution from the City of Iowa City itself.
The Grow stage moves into fruition this fall, with the opening of FilmScene’s Chauncey space, which they hope will open by August or September of this year. The space will double their number of screens, and Andrew Sherburne, one of FilmScene’s founders, hopes it will eventually be recognized on the national level as “an important place for cinema in the Midwest.”
“The best version of what we can be at FilmScene is to be a space where everyone can come together to experience art and have conversations as a community,” Sherburne said.
Pursuant to that, and in addition to shoring up and nurturing the two festivals already established by the Englert (Mission Creek and Witching Hour), there’s a new festival on the horizon for 2020: Refocus, a film festival that trades on Iowa City’s status as a City of Literature by highlighting films adapted from literary works.
But it’s the lessons that they’re learning in the process of the Strengthen step, and implementing as they Grow — what Sherburne calls a “case study for deeper collaboration” — that will really drive them forward as they Evolve.
“There is a kind of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ situation,” Sherburne said. “That’s one of the goals of this campaign.”
As FilmScene Executive Director Joe Tiefenthaler said during the event, the two organizations knew they “could do something [for the community] that was more than bricks and mortar.”
“It would be great to have national recognition,” Roche said of the campaign’s stated goal to build the greatest small city for the arts in America. “But what I care about the most is that our organizations are strong and sustainable, that they continue to expand on who they’re serving … and that they continue to innovate in how they collaborate with the cultural trust.”
A big part of that will be their new shared resource — a Community Engagement Director who will facilitate the organizations’ outreach to schools (one of their hopes is that each one of the roughly 14,000 students in the Iowa City Community School District will engage meaningfully with the arts and with their organizations before graduation) and to community organizations.
“We talk a big game about being welcoming,” said Englert executive director Andre Perry of the Iowa City community during the event. “But we really have to live up to that … How are we setting [arts experience and access] up for the next generation?”
The Community Development Director, a three-year pilot program for a full-time, shared staff member, will also help to open the lines of communication with other arts organizations in the community.
“Part of what we want to do after we’ve met some of the big capital goals for this,” Sherburne continued, “is devoting resources to convening other arts organizations in town.”
But when that happens, Roche said, “We don’t want to dictate … We’re just really excited about sharing what we’ve learned.”
Both Roche and Sherburne see this unlikely collaboration in fundraising, in outreach, and even in staffing between two organizations that might otherwise be considered in competition with one another as a concrete way forward for other arts organizations in town. They believe that collaboration is the key to future success.
“Learned experiences resonate with people,” Roche said. “People shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel … we should be building off of each other’s progress.”