Czech museum post-flood plans on track

by Bekah Porter

CEDAR RAPIDS – Forget bigger and better.

The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library intends to emerge from the 2008 floods stronger and safer.

“Although, we will be bigger than before, too,” said Gail Naughton, museum president and CEO.

In recent weeks, the organization took several significant steps toward its goal of eclipsing its pre-flood presence.

First, the museum entered a $1-a-year lease agreement with the city of Cedar Rapids. This move allows the museum to have crews lift its flood-damaged building, haul it across the street and place it on higher ground.

Second, the museum secured a $3 million grant from the Hall-Perrine Foundation.

“For a community to rebuild, you have to have your art and culture back. You have to have those things that make life worth living,” Ms. Naughton said. “We’re right on track with making that happen.”

Two years ago, floods swept through Cedar Rapids’ beloved Czech Village, roared through the museum, dumped eight feet of water in the galleries and retreated with about $25 million worth of dreams.

“The flood was a disaster in every word,” Ms. Naughton said. “But we were able to survive, and people have rallied behind us and supported us in every sense. It’s given us the heart to fight to make it.”

Museum workers first secured exhibition space. For about a year, employees camped in the Lindale Mall, and only in April did they open a larger temporary facility at 16th Avenue SW. Now the administration is focused on dual objectives — providing visitors with an immediate cultural experience and securing a long-term space.

“As a nonprofit, you have to raise the money to operate, to run your programs every year,” Ms. Naughton said. “We have to maintain an operation that’s open to the public, and at the same time, you have to put in untold hours in relation to the flood recovery.”

With its new exhibition “Rising Above: The Story of a People and a Flood” inviting an increasing number of visitors, the focus has turned to the most-recent efforts regarding flood renovations.

Forefront on the museum staff’s minds is fundraising. The organization needs about $16 million to move, renovate and expand its flood-damaged building. Thus far, donors have pledged about $16.5 million to the museum’s recovery efforts. But more is needed. According to Ms. Naughton, the museum needs about $25 million to cover all expenses and projects related to flood recovery.

With capital collected for rebuilding efforts, the museum has started planning for its largest project.

By October, the museum plans to break ground at the city property at 1350 A St., SW. The property formerly housed the Roundhouse, a facility that used to host farmers’ markets and other outdoor events. It had sat unused since the flooding, and the Czech Village Association recently removed the building with plans to reassemble it elsewhere.

Once crews complete foundation construction, they will move the museum from its location just across the street. Ms. Naughton said that in February workers would transport the facility in one piece and deposit on the site that sits 11 feet higher than its previous location. That elevation would mean the museum would sit three feet higher than 2008 flood level peaks.

Work will not stop once the building is moved and renovated, however. A large addition is next on the agenda. With the building complete, the facility will include:

• A 4,000-square foot program and education space where the museum can host conferences, events, lectures and performances.

• A small theater that can seat 55 people for films, videos and small programs.

• A classroom for school tours and activities.

• Three galleries. Two smaller galleries will host traveling and changing exhibitions, while the larger gallery will display the museum’s permanent exhibition. The previous museum had only two galleries.

• An enlarged library with public space for research and small library programming, as well as extra room for archives and storage space.

• Artifact collection space. Previously, the museum housed much of its artifacts off-site.

Ms. Naughton said a firm timeline has not yet been set, although she tentatively expects the museum to open at its new location in May 2012.

“(The new facility) will offer us so many opportunities,” she said. “We have had monumental work to do, and we still have so much work left, but I think if you look at it in the long term, we will come out of this as a stronger institution. I think we will be recognized nationwide and internationally as a museum that survived a crisis and came out better, and I think it takes real gumption to accomplish that.”

The next steps for the facility will be a continuous fundraising effort and the October groundbreaking.

“We’ve found out what we’re made of, and we’re made of tough stuff,” Ms. Naughton said. “We’re proud of where we are at this point, and now that we can see what our future is, we know we have a lot of work to get there, but we’re feeling really good about where we are, as well as where we’re heading.”