A myth about art that Craig Harshaw, executive director of the Riverside Arts Center, is quick to denounce is that “art is for a very affluent, ‘in-the-know’ group of people.”

His point of view is that art is a basic human right, and that includes being able to create as well as view art.

Having access to art should be as common as “having access to food, clothing, and clean water,” he says.

A native of Coldwater, Mich., Harshaw attended Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio with an interest in theater. After finding out the theater department couldn’t provide the academic base he was looking for, Harshaw wrote his own college major using an American studies model in order to get a broader sense of culture.

The combined subject of theater, history and literature gave him “something” to begin making theater about.

Furthering his studies were additional classes in classic Greek literature, Elizabethan literature and Spanish classical literature. This self-directed curriculum led him to explore certain artistic questions, such as taking forms like history or literary criticism and putting them in another form for people to appreciate.

That exploration led him to develop performance art pieces and to work in non-traditional ways with non-traditional audiences, including public schools, jails, different kinds of community centers and churches.

To meet this new goal, Harshaw founded an organization called Insight Arts in 1991. The mission of Insight Arts is to increase access to artwork that deals with human rights and social justice issues. Harshaw wanted to be able to present artistic works, and the ability to create them, to people who normally wouldn’t normally be able to do so.

A venue where Harshaw and his colleagues found they could be most effective was in the public schools. Harshaw and team would talk with teachers in early September, after they had their new classes, and determine their specific academic needs of the students.

From these meetings, an art project would be developed, which could take the shape of a theater project, video or photography installation.

Harshaw cites the subject of history as one of those areas of academic need, a class that “often students are turned off by since often the materials are old” or not inclusive enough to reflect their own lives and histories.

“This lack of interest in history,” he says, “causes a whole set of other learning challenges.”

“Because we were not part of the public school system, we were free to bring in a more multi-cultural history, a more feminine history, as a way to engage the students.”

This, Harshaw discovered, enabled students to learn more comprehensively. He explains that while the goal was to make an art project, the means to get there was through researching topics.

“Young people could improve their skills in research and writing and through this process become more invested in the final project,” he says. “This gave them total ownership of what they have created.”

Because the art project would eventually be shared with the entire school, the students wanted the outcome to be especially good. Harshaw admits that it is a bit like tricking students into studying, but the level of passion becomes a way for the students to discover they enjoy these academic subjects.

Through a staff restructuring at Insight Arts, Harshaw was able to pursue other projects, including the position of executive director at the Riverside Arts Center (RAC).

When Harshaw first saw the ad for the position he commuted from Rogers Park to check out the town. He found Riverside to be a “really interesting place” with an “intense sense of community.”

He likened that community feel to something more often found in the city rather than many other suburban areas. After doing additional research on the arts center he says, “By the time I had my first interview, I was already into the idea of being here.”

His easy connection with both Insight Arts and Riverside Arts Center is due in part to what they have in common: dedication to art, art education and a genuine community presence. When talking about RAC, he says, “Often when we think of a community arts center, we usually don’t think of it being in the suburbs.”

He credits the arts center as being very well integrated with children’s programming and innovative outreach programs, as well as the fine art world.

“The Freeark Gallery is an incredibly important contemporary art gallery for the Chicagoland area,” Harshaw says. “Due to cuts in funding, the gallery is one of the few places where emerging visual artists can show their work.”

At the same time, Harshaw says, people also know the center as the place their kids have been going for art classes since they were 3 or 4 years old.

On the job since September 2005, Harshaw is the first executive director for whom the position has been centralized. A main part of his job is communicating with the many different administrators and partnering agencies.

While the administrative work may not be glamorous, he is very happy to have such a variety of projects. He has worked with RAC board and committee members to identify fundraising initiatives and to direct those efforts to meet the needs of sustainable growth.

He also has a hand in curating and developing new program initiatives, focusing on what new opportunities RAC isn’t doing and asks, “What isn’t here, but needs to be?”

One such initiative will begin this coming fall when the Riverside Arts Center will start showing films. Working with Erin Patinkin, the RAC’s communications director, board and committee members realized that people around here have to go pretty far to see certain films, especially art films.

“As an arts center, we were a natural connect,” Harshaw says.

Harshaw says the need for innovative programming has become especially critical, as so many agencies have folded.

“There are places you thought would never close,” he says.

Specifically he cites the demise of Women in the Director’s Chair, folding after 25 years, and Performing Arts Chicago, a 52-year-old institution.

Harshaw believes it’s an interesting time for Riverside Arts Center”a time of great growth when other arts organizations are struggling with funding cuts and downsizing.

“We ask ourselves what this means, in terms of our place in the entire Chicago arts community,” Harshaw says. “Not just what role we have, but what our responsibilities are.

“Should we be doing more exhibitions? How should we be partnering with other organizations that are struggling, not just ones that are successful?”

Which brings up another myth regarding art, that artists are financially irresponsible, flaky, and shouldn’t be given anything because they’ll just waste it.

“It’s actually the opposite,” Harshaw contends. “If corporations had to go through the kind of stiff structures that arts organizations and artists do and manage to make all this work, it would be amazing,” he says.

“There’s no Enron in the arts world where people can blow money on lavish parties.”

And as much as he may get depressed over cutbacks and the loss of so many substantial arts organizations, he still is “astounded every day by how many arts places stay alive in spite of that.”

Which brings him to one final truth, the undeniable presence of art in society and its contribution to everyone’s lives. Even under the most severe situations, people find a way to sculpt in soap or to use color pages from magazines for watercolor painting.

Peoples’ natural creativity “triumphs so often over every adversarial position put in its way,” he says.

And just like the need for food or clean water, “you’re not going to stop it.”