Revitalized Vets Commission Vets Proposal, Ventures Forward
by Michael McAllister
Two new members of Grinnell’s Veterans Memorial Commission were welcomed to a regular monthly meeting of the commission at 5:15 p.m., Monday, February 13, at the community room of the Drake Community Library. One resignation was acknowledged.
The well-attended meeting—approximately 24 people were in the audience—represented a new beginning for the commission, which has been stalled due to member departures and delays in securing new appointees. The last five-member meeting of the commission was a special planning session on November 30, 2015. The commission met with three members in January of this year for the first time since September of 2016.
The two recently appointed members are Gwen Rieck, pictured above on the left, veteran of the United States Air Force where she served as a nurse. To Rieck’s left is Marie Andrew, who served in both the United States Army and the Iowa Army National Guard.
Chad Rose is the member who resigned, leaving a vacancy to be filled by Mayor Canfield.
The commission moved first to elect officers. Leo Lease, above right, was elected as the commission chair. Gwen Rieck will serve as vice chair, and Marie Andrew will assume the role of recording secretary.
The commission entertained and unanimously passed five motions that will determine action for the next several months.
Motion one called for the commission to endorse the artist residency proposal that Tom Lacina submitted at the January meeting. This proposal calls for the Veterans Memorial Building to be “renovated to commemorate the services rendered by soldiers, sailors and marines of the United States by making the space into a national artist residency with a special commitment to veterans.” The commission’s passage of the motion commits members “to pursue renovation and restoration plans to be completed by September 1.”
The second motion called for recruitment of community veterans to serve on a steering committee to work with Tom Lacina and to report to the commission. Lease emphasized the need for young veterans during discussion surrounding this motion and stressed that need again later in the meeting.
Motion three called for the formation of subcommittees, each with a specific purpose such as obtaining cost estimates and restoration plans, developing a business plan for tenant operations, locating possible tenants, and developing a fundraising plan. During discussion before the vote, Tom Lacina reported that he had met with John Bushong of Bushong Construction, one of the companies that has already submitted a plan for the building, and new cost estimates should be available by March 1. Additional discussion involved restrictions that can affect how funds can be spent—the difference between restoration and renovation, for example. Such stipulations emphasize, Lease noted, how important the expertise of city administrators is to blend with efforts of the Veterans Memorial Commission.
The theme of working closely with the mayor and the city council “for legal and procedural guidance” continued as the basis for motion four. Lease called for renewed cooperation, defining it “crucial” and, echoing a comment from the January meeting by saying that he feels bridge building has already begun. “We need to be believable,” Lease continued, because not only is city expertise necessary but also city participation is required for loan opportunities should the levy issue pass in November.
The fifth motion passed addressed the current vacancy on the commission. It was a motion “to request that the mayor promptly fill” the new commission vacancy and that “in the interests of diversity it should be a younger veteran.” Lease further called the absence of young veteran involvement “a major failing.” He added, “Somehow we’ve got to get [younger veterans] here.” As for the vacancy, Lease noted that he believes Mayor Canfield has a list of names from which to select.
Following a short inquiry session, the meeting was adjourned, at which point Tom Lacina, above, presented an update to the artist residency plan proposed at the January meeting. The update dealt with questions, some explicit and some implied, as follows.
- How does an artist residency program work?
- Artists apply to participate in such a program and must be approved. They would live and work in the Veterans Memorial Building for a month or perhaps a few months. Some would likely pay for the opportunity, but fees would be determined by various funding considerations. Partici-pants would be required to interact with the community, as that is one of the purposes of an artist residency program.
- Will the residency admit non-veterans?
- The program will favor veterans, but to make the project as strong as possible non-veterans will also be eligible. Even for non-veterans, however, a connection to military service would be favored—for example, an artist might come from a family in which a father or mother, brother or sister, or other relative has served.
- Will the artists live in the space?
- Because the program calls for from 24 to 36 artists being involved each year, securing that degree of housing in the community presents problem. The building’s downstairs is appropriate for living spaces and workshops. In addition, part of the purpose of an artist residency program is to bring artists together, to interact, to share crafts, and to generate synergy.
- Why [in the plan] is the upper floor not maintained as a large community space?
- The upstairs portion of the building must be dedicated primarily to studios, five or more, that look out upon Central Park. That arrangement will provide marketing opportunities and will attract participants. The plan also notes that “running a hospitality space is demanding” and that the focus of this plan is on “making the artist residency work and on developing activities within the community that are ancillary to the residency.” However, the plans do call for a community area at the north end of the building and a meeting area in the northwest corner. The entrance area “will be dedicated primarily to recognition of veterans,” including those in residence. Plans also include a balcony to the south of the building and a lounge area that could be used by artists and for certain community events.
- What about the kitchen?
- A full kitchen is not feasible due to cost and licensing issues. A catering kitchen is desirable, however, and is a part of the plan.
- Who will run the place?
- Lacina calls for an outside party with experience in arts management—in other words, an organization that knows what it is doing. The plan notes that this important point will need to be “nailed down” as part of the presentation to both potential contributors and to the public as the date of the levy vote nears in November.
Currently, Lacina is conducting informational meetings at the Arts Center to inform the public, to answer questions, and to generate discussion. In additional remarks that followed the meeting, he expressed encouragement at the degree of interest expressed by members of the community in casual conversation with him. Although “big numbers” are required for funding—specifically, raising $500,000 to $1 million by approximately September 1—Lacina stated he is “not troubled” by that level of financial support. He expects a two-phase method of financing will be required, a positive levy outcome notwithstanding, with the second involving grant writing that time limitations do not permit in phase one.
The proposal is certainly one that could draw various segments of the community to the cause of preserving the Veterans Memorial Building. It would help establish an artistic corridor extending from Grinnell College south through the developing Zone of Confluence, including the Grinnell Arts Center and the newly announced creative space for local artists on the other side of Broad Street, to a new Central Park. Moreover, it would encourage unique methods of veteran expression, veteran therapy, veteran recognition, and community participation.
To invite artists to come and work in a space in a revitalized park, to invite artists to experience the hospitality of a Midwestern town, to provide artists a gallery focusing on “socially relevant art” from artists committed to community involvement—“I can sell that,” Lacina asserted.
“My thought is that let’s focus and do something really great,” declared Lacina near the end of the gathering. Several veteran art programs are in operation, but Grinnell’s project as envisioned would be unique and could doubtless attract national attention.