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Englert, FilmScene join forces to build greatest small city for the arts

Strengthen • Grow • Evolve campaign raising $5.5 million to preserve buildings, expand programs
Local residents set up lawn chairs and settled in on the grounds of the Ranshaw House in North Liberty for an outdoor showing of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” Saturday, June 8. The event was an outreach project for the Englert Theatre and FilmScene in support of their Strengthen • Grow • Evolve campaign. (photo by Doug Lindner)

NORTH LIBERTY– When you live in North Liberty, Solon or anywhere in Johnson County, you don’t have to travel far for top-shelf arts and entertainment.
The historic Englert Theatre and FilmScene in Iowa City, both embarked on significant facility campaigns, understand sometimes the arts have to come to you.
The two organizations have banded together for Strengthen • Grow • Evolve (SGE), a $6.5 million effort to update and expand with the goal of making Iowa City the greatest small city for the arts in America.
Part of that is reaching out to the communities outside Iowa City with access to the arts and educational opportunities.
Armed with a new portable FilmScene screen, SGE supporters hosted an outdoor showing of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” Saturday, June 8, on the grounds of the Ranshaw House in North Liberty.
And the weather cooperated.
“The event was a really fun time and a beautiful night,” said Andrew Sherburne, associate director and cofounder of FilmScene. It was the first time FilmScene and the Englert had collaborated on a community arts presentation in North Liberty, he said.
The groups partnered with the City of North Liberty and Collins Community Credit Union to present the movie free with complimentary popcorn. Ice cream and shaved ice vendors were also parked near the entrance and families settled in on lawn chairs, entertained by a string quartet until dusk.
Close to 200 attended, Sherburne reported.
“We couldn’t have asked for better weather, always a risk with an outdoor screen, but it was a cloudless sky,” he said.
The new screen was purchased this summer and it was FilmScene’s first opportunity to test it out, he added. “The picture looked great.”
The screening had the dual purpose of getting the word out about the campaign and bringing residents together, he noted.
“We want people to know all the hard work we’re doing down here to engage the community,” he continued. “And then it’s also representative of some of the work that we hope to do more of if the campaign is successful.”
Nick Bergus, communications director for the City of North Liberty and a member of the Englert Theatre’s board, noted humans innately care for the arts, from hanging our kids’ art on the fridge to hearing favorite songs performed at concerts.
“The arts are an intangible, quality-of-life asset on which our community thrives,” Bergus said. “Just as there’s value to being able to go to Kinnick for a Saturday in the fall, there’s value to being able to see your favorite (or soon-to-be favorite) band or experience a great film. Art is an amenity that, as we continue to grow, helps make sure our community has infrastructure for its soul.”
Building the greatest small city for the arts is about having a thriving arts scene for everyone, he added, including making sure kids have meaningful arts experiences while they’re in school.

Strengthen • Grow • Evolve, as its name implies, is a divided into three initiatives.
The first focuses on historical preservation of the Englert Theatre and the existing FilmScene location at 118 E. College St. in Iowa City.
William Englert and his wife Etta built the theater on the site of a livery stable and opened it in 1912, according to a history on the theatre’s website.
The Englert Theatre rivaled the finest stage and movie houses throughout the Midwest, hosting touring vaudeville acts and showing three-reel films.
William Englert died in 1920 at the age of 46, and his wife enlisted A.H. Blank and his partner Nate Chapman to oversee the operation. Chapman died in 1925, but his wife Dora took up his role and continued to lead the management.
In 1926, a fire nearly destroyed the theater, which was quickly rebuilt in the style of ornate movie palaces of the 1920s.
It continued in operation until the late 1990s, when managers decided to close the operation and sell the aging building, which was to be converted to a bar. A group of local residents persuaded the City of Iowa City to purchase the theater and hold it in trust until funds could be raised to preserve its original use.
The “Save the Englert” campaign worked for five years to raise the funds necessary to renovate the theater and it reopened for its first live performance in over 60 years Dec. 3, 2004.
Funds raised by the SGE effort will preserve and modernize the building, noted Englert Executive Director Andre Perry.
A lot of the preservation effort will focus on the Englert’s brickwork, he said. The back wall is particularly distressed, the roof needs sealing, and improvements need to be made to the windows and front façade.
Other upgrades are aimed at keeping the performance space on the cutting edge, with a new public address system and the accompanying boards and wiring, Perry said.
New lighting will put less stress on the building’s electrical needs, he added.
“We’re trying to get as efficient as possible.”
The theater is consciously aware of its place in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor, Perry said.
“We’re particularly committed to all of the towns that are part of Johnson County, because that’s like our heart and soul,” he said. “That’s where most of our patrons come from.”
Although it varies year to year, Perry said about 60 percent of the people participating in Englert programming come from Johnson County
“It’s pretty healthy,” he said. “That said, it could be stronger.”
So the Englert is trying to up its game.
For the first time, it partnered this year with the City of North Liberty to book the main stage at Blues & BBQ, something it had done several years ago for the city’s centennial celebration.
“We try to keep having these engagements where we’re not just asking people to drive to downtown Iowa City, but also try to bring awesome engagements and arts event to other parts of the area,” Perry explained. “It means a lot to us. We’re super proud and honored to be able to collaborate with the city in that way that’s a big deal for us.”

While the Englert is a historic architectural gem and an important community venue, FilmScene’s current building is even older, Sherburne said.
Built in the 1860s, it’s had renovations over the years, but improvements are needed to make it a viable long-term space, he said.
“A space that we can keep active. We don’t want to leave this space,” Sherburne noted. “So even after we open our new space, we intend to keep this space on the ped mall open just to give us more programming opportunities.”
Work on both the Englert and the FilmScene structure will be initiated yet this year, he said.
The new space Sherburne referenced is part of the Grow portion of the campaign, a second location for FilmScene in the new Chauncey Building on Gilbert Street.
The hope is to open this fall with two primary screens (120 and 70 seats), state-of-the-art projection and sound and a third smaller screen on the second floor with flexible seating for receptions and educational programs.
“That’s a huge step for us,” Sherburne said. “It’s something that we’ve envisioned– this project’s been in the works for over seven years now, and it’s really exciting to see that come to fruition, the dream of having a state-of-the-art, purpose-built cinema to present film as an art form.”
A nonprofit, mission-based cinema, FilmScene currently has two screens (65 and 35 seat).
“We like to say that we’re more than a movie theater,” Sherburne said. “Our mission is to not just entertain, but also educate and engage and challenge through the presentation of film as art form.”
In addition to new regular releases, FilmScene offers screenings of American independent, foreign and documentary films, accompanied by six rotating local craft beers on tap, wine and Iowa’s best popcorn.
“When the credits roll at FilmScene, we think that’s not the end of your experience here, like it often times is at the multiplex,” he said. “That’s just the first half. And really talking about what you see and thinking more deeply about it is what we pride ourselves in.”
FilmScene offers unique films, selected for their artistic quality and their ability to start conversations in the community.
Its “Science on Screen” series, supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, presented movies like “Gravity,” then brought in real scientists from the area to discuss the physics seen on screen.
Film is a great way to encourage discourse, he said.
“It’s about a first-class experience,” he observed. “It’s also, again, about community.”
It will be hard to find a cinema within 200 miles in any direction to compare with the quality of presentation at the new FilmScene, he noted.
“It’s something really special, not just for our city, our area, but for Eastern Iowa and the Midwest region,” he added.
That’s why making the milestones for the Strengthen • Grow • Evolve campaign is so important.
They’re about halfway to the $6.5 million goal in confirmed pledges, anticipated tax credits and grants, and Sherburne said the push is on to put a big dent in the number by fall.
SGE will continue raising money until the target is reached, he said, but organizers are promoting hard now as bills for the new FilmScene come due.
Reaching the goal will allow the two cultural nonprofits to focus on the third area of improvement– evolving.
“Once we’ve solidified our facilities and we know that we’ll be healthy for years to come and have the facilities that are required to put on a great show, we want to invest in some of the educational that work we do– improving access to the arts and improving the outreach that we do,” Sherburne said.
Much of the effort will come from a new position to be shared by the two organizations.
The community education coordinator will make sure youth have the opportunity to take in a performance at the Englert, he said, and find ways to infuse visiting artists into area schools.
“The reason that we’re partnering is because we realized we’re part of something that’s bigger,” the Englert’s Perry said. “I think that’s also how we see the area geographically.”
The Englert and FilmScene serve more than just Johnson County, and they want to be seen as regional experts, the two agreed, but serving the local residents is first and foremost.
And the outdoor showing in North Liberty last month was the first step.
“Everybody here deserves to be engaged in the arts and wants to be engaged in the arts, so we want to serve everybody,” Sherburne said. “It was a fun event, but ultimately it serves our mission of creating community through arts,”

For more information
Strengthengrowevolve.org