Cedar Rapids can be a splendid place to make and perform art.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily make it a great place to earn money doing so.
Artists here describe a litany of challenges to making a living in Cedar Rapids, from the relatively small number of galleries and performance venues to the city’s overwhelming association with industry rather than the arts. It’s a picture far different from, say, Iowa City, with its university-spawned art and performance and large, younger population.
But that could change, observers say, if the community embraces the opportunity.
Still, Cedar Rapids will have to stretch to fulfill the vision of becoming a regional arts hub that attracts consumers from outside its limited local market. So much could be done to boost the economic fortunes of artists in the area that artists nearly leap at the opportunity to discuss them.
At the top of the list may be engaging and educating the marketplace.
In the ceramic arts, “there’s something — a lack of knowledge — not so much out of a lack of interest as much as a lack of active interest,” said Ben Jensen, executive director of the Ceramics Center.
Jensen also noted Iowa’s second-largest city lacks a major arts festival.
The ceramics center uses carefully planned guerrilla marketing tactics to engage consumers.
“We put it in places that are unexpected,” Jensen said.
The center has been working with several coffee houses to surprise consumers with locally crafted earthenware coffee mugs that they can take home free after they enjoy the coffee.
The ceramics center has worked with Zins, a downtown restaurant, on special events at which place setting include handcrafted ceramic bowls and plates from local artists, and diners can buy them afterward.
John Herbert, CSPS co-director, frequently hears from artists frustrated by the limitations of the local market. He ticked down a list of ways the community can support artists, including such basic concepts as encouraging performers who play at night clubs to perform their own original work rather than insisting on covers.
“Artists should be encouraged to do original work,” Herbert told a group of artists convened to hear about CSPS’ programs to support artists.
“Artists should be fairly compensated for their work,” Herber said. “Artists should have health insurance.”
The CSPS/Legion Arts initiatives include “The Work of Art,” a 10-class course that begins in January on the business side of art. It uses curriculum and an instructor from Minneapolis-based Springboard for the Arts, which has a national reputation for its work in career development for artists.
The inexpensive classes cover such topics as career planning, building a portfolio, marketing, legal considerations, financial management, where to obtain funding, pricing work and using social media.
CSPS/Legion Arts also is planning an Artists’ Health Fair, tentatively set for April 13, which will include free screenings and vaccinations, referrals and education about resources such as free clinics.
“Most artists are low-income, and many of them are uninsured,” Herbert said. “A lot of them have particular health concerns, some of which are related to their work or materials they use in their art.”
At its newly renovated and expanded facility, CSPS also is launching the Arts Incubator at CSPS Hall. It includes six 75-square-foot office cubicles with furnishings and network connections that will rent for $200 to 250 per month.
The idea is that arts organization administrators sharing the same work space will share challenges and solutions. They also will have access to a Legion Arts artist services coordinator trained by Springboard.
Each tenant will be required to enroll one representative in the Work of Art program.
Artists at a CSPS artist services meeting last month spoke earnestly about their love-hate relationship with the local arts marketplace.
“One of the things missing is a lot of collaboration and conversation,” said Patrick Muller, who creates under the name Hanpo Weltkunst, and blogs about his relationship to the arts at prairieincubator.wordpress.com.
Jewelry designer Yvette Craddock of Click Marketing Solutions, who participated in the discussion, ponders similar questions as she produces her local cable TV arts program “Frame.”
Craddock said finding more ways for everyday people to interact with art is part of the magic she’s seen in more arts-centric communities.
“Having the arts and experiencing the art are two different things,” Craddock said.
Businesses realize that art can enhance their image and relationships, Craddock said, “but the business community is still figuring out where that fits with their bottom line.”
Getting art out into the community has been a longtime goal for Greg Stokesberry, who coordinates the Wizzard Art Gallery at 421 First Ave. SE, in the Sub City sandwich shop, and is active in the KNBO NewBo Radio startup.
If Stokesberry could emphasize one thing that would build a stronger arts economy in Cedar Rapids, it would be an emphasis on youth, giving them more opportunities and exposure to keep them in the community.
Black Earth Gallery owner Anne Stamats, who works as a corporate art consultant, also sees things coming together for the arts business in NewBo. That’s one reason she decided to open the gallery in part of her husband’s studio space.
Stamats said the area has several fine galleries, but she is still approached frequently by artists who want her to represent their work because there just aren’t enough of such spaces. One of her dreams as the NewBo area evolves as an arts community is to create a true gallery walk, that could hold regular monthly events and feature sidewalk display space for younger artists.
For the entrepreneurial economy, CSPS co-director Herbert said, some of the ingredients are pretty simple.
“You want to create an atmosphere where people are encouraged to take a chance,” Herbert said, mentioning the helpful landlord who gave CSPS/Legion Arts a dirt-cheap lease for many years.
CSPS/Legion Arts also is offering fiscal sponsorships for individual artists and special projects that need fundraising and administrative help, Herbert said.
In addition, it is trying to sustain and rebuild an artists relief fund created after the 2008 flood, which has largely been depleted. The fund provides one-time grants to help artists get through emergencies.
“We are in a weird moment, culturally, where we think Facebook is the answer, but it’s not,” Herbert said.