RAC Craft table | Provided

When Ruth Freeark and Jennifer Taylor set out in 1993 to create what would become the Riverside Arts Center, they were looking to create a community of local artists and a common space for like-minded creatives to collaborate and, put simply, create art. 

Thirty years later, the center, which lives on Quincy Street, is still growing and its commitment to community lives on. RAC attracts local artists and community members, along with creatives throughout Illinois. 

The Riverside Arts Center was birthed in a storefront apartment building owned by Ruth and Bob Freeark, whose names became inextricably linked to the art-centered community space. Ruth Freeark and Taylor, a former Riverside community member and artist who helped to create the center, and Garry Henderson spent hours pulling carpeting and nails from the floor to transform the space from an apartment with a kitchenette to what is now known as The Freeark Gallery. 

Taylor recalled Dr. Freeark telling his wife, “I think you two are smoking dope.” 

From these humble beginnings, RAC was formed. And on Thursday, it is hosting a gala to celebrate the center’s 30th anniversary, which will include a raffle and silent auction items. 

Kim Freeark, daughter of Ruth and Bob Freeark and co-curator of the center’s “Outside the Box” exhibition, said from the start, the center filled a gap in the community.

“People came out of the woodwork and said, ‘I want to be a part of this,’ because something was missing at that point,” Freeark said. “Riverside is so well-known for architecture… (but) it didn’t have a community-based arts center.” 

Riverside Arts Center hosts events in several spaces, including the Freeark Gallery and FlexSpace, the school, and the sculpture garden. Most exhibits feature an artist talk, workshop or public performance. In addition to hosting exhibitions at the Arts Center, RAC also shows local artists’ work at the Riverside Town Hall. RAC hosts 16 exhibitions each year, according to executive director Liz Chilsen. In 2022, the center served 126 artists and saw on average more than a hundred attendees at each exhibition.

The center also provides after-school and weekend youth programming, along with a variety of art classes for all ages. Advanced Placement art students from Riverside Brookfield High School have the opportunity to display their art at the center during an annual exhibition. 

Art instructor and ceramic artist Shawn Vincent has been involved with the center for 17 years, 12 of which she has spent as its school manager. Vincent, who sees the organization as a second family, said the center provides a safe space for people of all ages to create. 

“We are inclusive,” Vincent said. “Everybody comes in and is allowed to express their creativity, however they perceive it, with no judgment. We encourage just letting it go.” 

The center’s inclusive environment has kept Tariq “Mr. Tee” Tamir, who has been involved with the center for 18 years, coming back. At RAC, Mr. Tee found freedom to grow as both an educator and an artist. 

“I’ve taught at a few other places, but nothing is like Riverside,” Mr. Tee said. “What sticks out is the fact that it will have me. The Riverside Arts Center keeps me going.” 

Organizations including the Illinois Arts Council Agency and Arts Midwest, along with the Village of Riverside, and Riverside Township, have provided financial support to facilitate RAC’s growth and sustain its services, including its renowned exhibition programming, its educational programs, and artist residencies.

The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation has provided funding through grants to RAC since 2016, according to Ellen Wadey, the foundation’s Chicago Artistic Vitality and Collections program director. Wadey interacted with RAC for the first time when it hosted Chicago-based artist Riva Lehrer’s “Exquisite Radical” exhibition. Right off the bat, Wadey said it was clear the organization had a close connection with its community. Since then, she’s become a regular visitor to RAC’s artist talks. 

Celebrating a three-decade anniversary is no easy feat, Wadey said. 

“Having a nonprofit art gallery for 30 years is a real accomplishment. Running a small arts organization is not for the faint of heart,” she said. “(Community-based) arts organizations are the beginning of the heartbeat of the arts.” 

As for the next 30 years, many in the RAC community hope to see the organization’s exhibition and school programming continue to grow. Chilsen said the center is also working on expanding its reach into the community. Chilsen said she hopes with more awareness may come more funding, which is essential to the center’s development and success. The building itself could use repairs and maintenance, she said. Chilsen hopes the center’s “shoestring budget” will become a “whole pair of boots.”

Taylor said she’s proud of what the center she and fellow local artists created back in 1993 has done for Riverside and beyond.

“The arts in general are terribly important. It’s the thing that creates your soul,” Taylor said. “Without the art center, I wonder where I’d be today because it’s one of those things that was so beautiful, so big in my life that it certainly sent me in a direction I probably would never have discovered.”