Riverside Arts Center (RAC) executive director Emily Tuesday envisions a beehive when she thinks about the role she wants the center to play in the Ypsilanti community. She draws parallels between the production of honey, with bees busily buzzing in and out of the hive, and the creation of art. Since the buzzing of bees is reflective of their productivity, Tuesday would like the diversity of sounds emanating from the building to be symbolic of the activity that's happening inside.
"The sound level totally indicates community. The busier it is and the more the sound is increasing, I feel like we’re getting closer to our mission," Tuesday says. "It means we’re alive. We’re more than just a building, we’re all the people within it. I love the idea that multiple rooms are lit up with totally different mediums and meetings and groups."
RAC, 76 N. Huron St., is gradually fulfilling its goal of becoming a community hub by frequently hosting exhibitions, meetings, classes, and more. Program manager Trevor Stone sees each event that RAC hosts as an opportunity for leadership to connect with new people and ask them how they can be of service. Instead of simply offering space and opportunities to create, RAC staff are aiming to create a platform for community building and an outlet for bringing ideas to fruition.
RAC has been a fixture in Ypsi since it opened in 1995, but the center has taken a new direction since last year, when Tuesday and Stone took their staff positions and RAC merged operations with arts nonprofit FLY Creativity Lab. Last January, RAC initiated a 10-month public input period comprised of surveys, informal feedback, and formal focus sessions to find out what community members want from the arts center. After collecting the community's input, RAC's board of directors implemented a new strategic plan, which aims to create a safe space in downtown Ypsi where anyone is welcome to explore, create, and innovate.
"What we created was something that reflected the needs of the community, and that really is our blueprint for how we’re growing over the next three years and beyond," Tuesday says. "It’s setting the stage for being that hub."
Dance teacher Gina Danene Thompson, who owns PURe Dance Ensemble, had tried for years to rent space at RAC, but it didn't become available until sometime in August, a few months after Tuesday took over as executive director in May. Danene Thompson has since been able to hold classes, rehearsals, and performances in RAC's dance studio and theater. She's excited about the possibility of RAC serving as a jumping-off point for young artists, so they don't have to move to other cities to start their careers, like she did when she moved from Ypsi to San Francisco.
"As an artist, my opportunities have increased tenfold because of being able to be a part of this community," Danene Thompson says. "I can have an idea for a show, and then as soon as that happens, there are 15 other opportunities for me to get involved through the building."
Danene Thompson is even getting involved in RAC's monthly exhibitions. She brought Beau Monde: An Anthology of Black Movement in America, a dance show that she wrote, choreographed, produced, and directed, to RAC for the center's Black History Month exhibition. She's planning a moving art piece that she's fantasized about for a long time and finally has the opportunity to bring to life for the center's Women's History Month exhibition.
After Stone came on board in September, RAC started producing its own monthly exhibitions with related programming and stopped charging artists to exhibit their work. RAC launched its annual calendar, simultaneous showings in both galleries, and various FLY Creativity Lab programs in January. The arts center is expanding its youth programming to include offerings for toddlers and parents, K-5 students, middle school students, and high school students.
Stone is inviting members of the community to join committees tasked with designing programming for RAC's monthly exhibitions. He assembled groups of African-American community leaders for a Black History Month exhibition in February and female community leaders for the Women's History Month exhibition in March. He will help high school art students curate their own show in the Off Center gallery, and display artwork by kids in kindergarten through eighth grade in the downstairs gallery for an Ypsilanti Community Schools exhibition in April.
Once a month, Grove Studios and Parkridge Community Center put on music performances that coincide with the theme of each monthly exhibition. Sometimes the two team up, like they did for the Black History Month exhibition, and sometimes they host separate performances.
RAC has continued to open its doors to events hosted by groups and individuals from the community. Oftentimes those events, like the recurrent Rising for Economic Democracy in Ypsi meetings, give Tuesday and Stone additional opportunities to build relationships or partnerships and ask residents how RAC can better serve them.
A new warming and community space also found a home at RAC after several of its founding organizers approached Tuesday in December. The organizers of Ypsi Gathering Space proposed a non-monetized space where those in need of community could get warm, enjoy a hot meal, play a game, and create art together. Since the beginning of January, the space has been reliant on volunteers and donations to keep it running on Thursday through Saturday evenings in RAC's garage area.
Ypsi Gathering Space organizers Lisa Voelker and Amy Shrodes believe RAC is becoming the space it's always had the potential to be by providing a place where people can be exposed to the arts and get to know people from different neighborhoods around Ypsi. Voelker and Shrodes think the center has begun to establish itself as a space where community can grow out of sharing creativity, fostering relationships, and interacting in unique ways.
"Emily and Trevor have done an incredible job together, with others too, to open this space up more, invite people in, and say yes to lots of different ideas from community members," Voelker says.
Stone has established close relationships with people who spend lots of time at RAC and he's watched those people foster friendships with others as well. He has noticed a "social criss-crossing" between people who are coming into RAC for different reasons, whether it's to dance, to view art, or to move social causes forward. He believes that community building adds to the "family vibe" he feels at RAC.
"There is a connectedness among the people who are making stuff happen and I think when people walk in that’s becoming more and more visceral," Stone says.
At the beginning of this year, RAC volunteer Cheyanne Jeffries started helping out a few times a week with exhibitions and programming because she was looking for a way to get involved in the community and do something creative. Her volunteer work at RAC has introduced her to many other Ypsi residents from different backgrounds, age groups, and ethnicities.
"I’ve done more meaningful stuff here than I’ve done at any other internship or volunteer experience, because I can see the direct impact of what I’m doing and I can see it coming to life in front of me," Jeffries says.
Jeffries thinks RAC is seeing success with its community engagement because it's trying to engage the whole community. She has noticed the art center's leadership is putting action behind its message of striving for diversity and inclusion. She believes that's evident in its mission to reflect what the community looks like and what the community needs.
"If we’re being useful, if we’re being of service to them, then they have a reason to come by and be in the space, whether it’s to see something, or show something, or meet others," Stone says.
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.