Talk about Friday Night Lights! On Friday, January 20, dozens of past and current board members, along with the current and three previous executive directors, of The Rye Arts Center gathered at a Board Reunion and celebrated more than sixty years of fostering arts in the community. The evening was a toast to the 500 citizens who have brought the many treasured activities of The Rye Arts Center to the public.
The organization began in 1960, when five couples banded together to establish The Rye Art Center to “promote active participation in the creative arts.” Each couple contributed $80 for materials and teachers; and classes were first held in a barn on the property of Founders Katherine and David Moore.
There was an instant and positive reaction! Classes in painting and drawing were moved to a space above Woolworth’s Department Store on Purchase Street, and soon extended to teens as well as adults. In the 1960s, the first film and lecture series were offered, as well as local house tours and trips to area museums.
Needing ever more space, in 1982, the RAC moved into the city-owned building at 51 Milton Road, which dates from the mid-nineteenth century. Just two years later, it was evicted by the City for code violations in the outdated infrastructure. The RAC became the “nomadic art center” and was dispersed to other venues — churches and people’s homes.
In 1984, the City of Rye announced plans to demolish the building. The board of directors, led by Janet Levine and Robert Wiener, refused to accept this “death sentence” and launched a massive public relations and construction campaign in the community to save the RAC. Thanks to the board’s heroic efforts and community-wide support, 51 Milton Road became the Center’s permanent home in 1987.
In the same year, a merger with the Rye Performing Arts Center brought about the name change to The Rye Arts Center. Growth and popularity were meteoric. Classes, cultural experiences, and curricular programming have grown ever since.
From two classes in painting and drawing offered to adults and teens in 1961, the Center now offers scores of classes, programs, and events in visual, performing, digital, and sensory arts to thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds.
The Center has expanded a broad variety of cultural experiences to area classrooms and children in neighboring underserved communities, through its Head Start, Famous Artists, and Eye on Art (which is focused on contemporary art) programs.
Famous Artists was started by Mary Gerster in 1986, with the goal of bringing art education to elementary schools. Parent docents visit classrooms throughout Westchester and talk about a particular artist. The artists are often selected because their work is featured in a concurrent exhibit at a museum in the area, enabling the students to travel and see the actual artworks they are studying.
Recent exhibits include those of photographers such as Tony Vaccaro and members of The Ground Glass. The Center’s rich exhibition history includes works by Romare Bearden and Faith Ringgold as well as many local artists, and original illustrations for children’s books such as “Eloise” and “Black Beauty”.
The Center has brought theater and music to the community, including readings by heralded Broadway actors John Cunningham and Frances Sternhagen, spirited evenings hosted by comedienne Kim Berns, and a band concert by Vince Giordano and the Night Hawk.
The arts have been shown to promote cognitive development and literacy, as well as self-esteem and community pride, and The Rye Arts Center maintains its ongoing dedication to engage people in the appreciation and practice of art.
- Photo courtesy of Leslye Smith