F. John Herbert

What NPN has Meant to Legion Arts

by F. John Herbert

Mel Andringa and F. John Herbert

I sometimes say that I can’t imagine personally coming of age in a world where Bob Dylan didn’t exist.

In the same way, I can’t imagine Legion Arts growing up without the National Performance Network.

It’s been my good fortune to experience NPN from many angles. In the late ‘80s I was part of Mel Andringa’s Iowa City-based performance ensemble, The Drawing Legion, and some of our earliest nonacademic gigs were at NPN sites LACE and MoMing. In fact, in 1987 we gained a measure of dubious fame when The New York Times singled us out as one of the “no-name companies” that a young NPN was then helping to move about the country.

In the early 90s we opened a venue in Cedar Rapids, adding presenting to our bag of tricks and reorganizing ourselves as Legion Arts. Throughout this transition we relied for intelligence, inspiration and good ideas not only on our previous touring experience, but on our friends at PS 122, Theatre Artaud, Jump-Start Performance Co. and the Walker Art Center. We borrowed liberally from each, when we weren’t outright stealing. Although we were not an NPN Partner at that point, our new venue, CSPS, was consciously built around the resources and connections of the network.

Somewhat later, in 1997, Legion Arts was one of a dozen or so artist or producing companies that were invited to become NPN Partners. While this experiment had mixed results, for Legion Arts it has proved invaluable. Others have alluded to the far-reaching utility of the NPN contract, which we all love (right?) despite its length and complexity. But the contract is only one part of an incredibly useful, value-driven system that facilitates the development and presentation of new work, while fostering such fundamentals as equity, independence, diversity, access and — not least of all — decent working conditions for artists and cultural workers.

NPN has set the bar pretty high, and we’ve benefited. Profoundly influenced by our involvement in the network, Legion Arts plays a unique role in the Iowa arts world, a role that was highlighted in 2007 when we had the privilege of hosting the NPN Annual Meeting. Based as we are in what I think is still the smallest city to host the meeting, it represented a tremendous opportunity for increased visibility and organizational growth.

Naturally the afterglow didn’t last too long. Today we’re recovering from the catastrophic flooding that struck Cedar Rapids in 2008. At the same time, like any number of other NPN Partners, we’re attempting to figure out how the organization can best outlast its founders, transitioning toward a new generation of leadership. In other words, Legion Arts is in the midst of yet another growth spurt: as exciting, bewildering, painful and gratifying as all the others. Lucky for us we’ve got NPN to help us get through it again.

May 2010

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