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On Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m., the Riverside Arts Center is inviting its members and their friends to join them at a “Here’s to You” party/open house. But the event inside the organization’s home at 32 E. Quincy St. is much more than a “welcome back” ceremony.
It represents Riverside Arts Center’s rebirth after three years of turmoil that almost sank the 17-year-old local arts institution. The party, at its most basic level, is a thank you to members who helped keep the RAC alive this summer. But it’s more than that.
The event will feature the unveiling of a new logo for the RAC and attempt to connect with new and old members by delivering the message that a new day has dawned there.
“We want to hear from the community about what they want the Arts Center to be,” said Kim Piotrowski, one of a handful of the group’s new board members. She is chairwoman of the RAC’s new marketing committee and spearheaded Renaissance RAC, a critical fundraising drive this summer as well as a new member drive in recent weeks.
“It’ll be sort of ‘open ears, open house,'” Piotrowski said.
Such an event would not even have been thought possible back in May. During the summer, the board of directors at the Riverside Arts Center was on the verge of pulling the plug on the institution. A bad hire back in 2007 had resulted in tax and other issues that nearly crippled the RAC. The economic crash that followed in its wake, only made matters worse.
It took the organization’s founder and patron, Ruth Freeark, to keep it on life support. But morale was low and longtime board members were simply emotionally exhausted by the turmoil.
“Emotionally, we were just spent,” said Jennifer Taylor, the board’s vice president and one of its charter members. “We were really seeing trouble heading our way, and we had plans to close at the end of 2010.
“Then something unusual happened.”
Actually, it was a combination of unusual things. First, the RAC began attracting new board members, bringing new enthusiasm and ideas. Second, the RAC became a laboratory of sorts for Art Fox, a friend of Taylor and her husband, who was trying to perfect a goal-achievement program, which he calls Positive Hindsight. He needed a case study from which he could start building a client base, and offered to try it out with the RAC for free.
Over the course of four sessions with the RAC board, Fox channeled the board’s energy in a coherent direction and they came up with a plan to not only save the RAC, but expand it.
“We spent three-and-a-half hours setting what the actual goal was,” said Fox of the group’s initial gathering. “Once we had that narrowed down, everyone was excited because they were working for the same goal.”
The sessions resulted in the RAC board creating a series of committees – marketing and building, for example – giving the organization point people to get tasks done, something that didn’t exist before.
The board wants the new RAC, according to a planning document provided by the organization, to be “a cultural destination of bricks and mortar as well as a virtual link for the global community to be nurtured, inspired and stimulated by art.”
They plan to do that by expanding gallery access to artists, expanding class offerings to utilize their building throughout the day and creating a website that will serve those first two goals.
The website will be a crucial part of the equation, said Bob Faust, a local graphic designer and new RAC board member who got to know Taylor while working on the Arcade Building murals last year. Faust is designing the new website, which should launch during the first quarter of 2011.
“That’ll be the tool that allows all of these new initiatives to come to life,” Faust said of the website.
The site will include blogs related to classes being taught at the RAC and will include portals for artists.
“It’ll be much more of a hub than an information center,” Faust said.
The RAC has already boosted its art education offerings and has hired artist Elaine Leonard as the RAC’s school manager.
“When someone thinks of the Riverside Arts Center, we want them to picture something different than what they think of now,” Leonard said “We want to be more modern, up to speed. It’s a very quaint, hidden place. Most people don’t even know it’s here. Right now we don’t have a lot of voice in this town.”
Leonard said she is expanding offerings for children and, during the winter, wants to broaden the types of classes offered for adults and teens.
The organization is also encouraging its members and supporters to help it win a $250,000 Pepsi Refresh Arts Grant (see accompanying story) to fund a building project that would transform the rear of the property, remodeling the north entrance, making it accessible from the adjacent train platform and generally sprucing up the view.
Mainly, the re-launch of the organization “is an opportunity to transform the Arts Center into a different kind of place,” Piotrowski said.