Monday, August 9, 2010

Our View - Choose between two good options for Hancher

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sept. 12, 2009

Our View - Choose between two good options for Hancher

On Sept. 27, 1972 -- the day the University of Iowa's Hancher Auditorium opened -- the Press-Citizen Editorial Board wrote the following:

"The building, and the opening series of events, however, offer but a promise of what Hancher Auditorium can offer to this community and all of Eastern Iowa. Fulfilling that promise next year and in the years to come will require a continued emphasis on the performing arts at the university and judicious selection of visiting attractions. Above all, realizing the vision of Virgil M. Hancher in the auditorium named in his honor will demand widespread support by the community he loved and served for so much of his life."

Little did we realize back in 1972 just how resilient "the vision of (former UI President) Virgil M. Hancher" would prove to be even after the auditorium named in his honor was devastated by the flood of 2008.

In the past 15 months, however, we've learned firsthand that the half-century-old vision of a university arts center can never be contained within any single building or complex made of brick-and-mortar. The Press-Citizen's "The Hancher Decision" -- which runs today, Sunday and Monday -- tells the story of how that vision has developed over the past four decades.

Even before the flood, we had a sense that Hancher's mission and reputation extended far beyond the Hancher-Voxman-Clapp complex. We saw its portability and expansiveness clearly on display during the outdoor performances the Joffrey Ballet gave throughout Iowa in 2007. But we now know what we only sensed then: That the name "Hancher" is much more than a mere waterlogged auditorium -- it's a brand, a spirit.

Last year, Hancher officials had to scramble to find temporary facilities for the already scheduled 2008-09 season. And this year Hancher officials pulled together an impressively eclectic list of events that will be in Chicago, Des Moines, Riverside and Cedar Rapids as well as in the Iowa Memorial Union, The Englert Theatre and City High.

Most importantly, the resilience and flexibility of the Hancher staff has given UI and state officials sufficient time to winnow down the possible relocation sites to two almost equally good options:

• Just up the hill -- and out of the river floodplain -- from the location of damaged Hancher Auditorium. (A location, in hindsight, we all wish UI officials, hydrologists and engineers would have suggested building the structure on back in the 1960s.)

• A two-block stretch of land on the south end of the Iowa City downtown. (A location that has city planners and downtown boosters dreaming about the cultural and economic development opportunities.)

But now the staff's effectiveness could be as much a detriment as a benefit to the discussions about where to locate the new physical manifestation of Hancher's vision. Because Hancher staff is doing its job so well, UI and state officials might be tempted to take more time than necessary to make this decision.

Like the rest of the community, the Press-Citizen Editorial Board is almost evenly split between the options. We have members who think this is a time for the university to dream big and to expand Hancher's vision to a more urban environment. And we have members who love Hancher's bucolic setting and who worry that the longtime patrons would be frightened away by a downtown setting.

With UI officials facing a choice between two good options, we think it's time they move quickly to choose one and then allow the community to respond. Many Hancher supporters worry that the longer UI officials wait to make a decision about a new auditorium, the more difficult it becomes for Hancher staff to keep in touch with the patrons and the donors who help keep the vision alive.

We think Hancher can succeed in either of these two locations. UI officials now just need to choose which dream will be just a dream and which vision of Hancher will be realized.

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