After a pandemic pause, Ypsi's Riverside Arts Center seeks to reinvent itself

Changes in the works include physical renovations, an overhaul of class offerings, and a vocal ensemble.
Ypsilanti's Riverside Arts Center (RAC) is taking the opportunity to reinvent itself after forced shutdown and staff reorganization during the COVID-19 pandemic. Changes in the works range from physical renovations to an overhaul of program offerings.

"The community really wants to see us succeed," says RAC Executive Director Amy Fracker, who took over the position in late summer of this year. "We want people to get used to the idea of being able to walk in and have something to do at all times, and everyone's invited."
RAC Executive Director Amy Fracker in the RAC dance studio.
The pandemic shuttered the center for much of 2020 and led to staff layoffs. In 2021, the center launched an artist residency program, but the building was still under-used for most of the year. Fracker and the board are planning for that to change in 2022.

RAC staff and board found out earlier this year that the state of Michigan had awarded a $450,000 Michigan Enhancement Grant to RAC. Fracker says the funding from the state means that staff can totally reimagine how to use RAC's existing spaces. 

Some funds will go toward improving the main entrance and lobby, creating a music room, and improving signs and wayfinding. However, the bulk of renovations will happen on the center's third floor. Currently, that third-floor space is mainly used for storage, but Fracker says she can imagine uses including a pottery studio and/or a darkroom for photography classes.

Fracker says she'd also like to make better use of RAC's outdoor space, including the courtyard off the center's parking lot. She's hoping to invite local musicians to plug in and have a spontaneous jam session outside the center some time next summer.
Slapslap perform in the RAC parking lot for A2SF.
The biggest changes, however, will be in RAC's programming. 

"For 25 years, we've served the community by providing low-cost rental space for teachers and artists to come in, do a class, and leave," Fracker says. It's been a good model, she says, but it's not typical of what people expect from a community arts center. 

"We want to produce our own classes. That is going to be the key to a successful arts center," Fracker says. 

RAC's black box theater will remain available to rent by community theater groups, but most of the other programming will be provided by RAC staff. Staff plan to start off small with pilot programs, launching one new class in January and another in February. Fracker says money that comes in from fundraisers, like a "disco fundraiser" coming in February, will be used to add staff.

Local dancer and troupe leader Peter Sparling used the center's dance studio during his residency there and "fell in love with the space," Fracker says. He's offered to help design a new dance curriculum and pull more people into the center.
Peter Sparling in the dance studio at Riverside Arts Center.
Fracker says that for the visual arts, RAC will expand its former practice of having a gallery committee select seasonal displays.

"We're going to take those gallery shows and use that as part of our programming," Fracker says. "For example, if there's a watercolor show, then we're going to offer watercolor classes and a lecture about watercolors. Then it becomes immersive and inclusive as opposed to one and done."

Fracker says she'd also like to make the center welcoming to all demographics, including those with special needs. She says the tactile nature of pottery is likely to be popular with that demographic. Additionally, she's already asked local theater troupes who plan to rehearse and perform at RAC to offer sensory-friendly performances and says all the groups were "excited to embrace that."

Fracker says she'd also like to build at least one room, maybe one per floor, that acts as a quiet area for anyone experiencing sensory overload. 

RAC has traditionally focused on theater, dance, and visual arts offerings but hasn't put much emphasis on music, Fracker says. She hopes to change that in 2022, with help from RAC board member and vocal recording artist Athena Johnson. 

Johnson says many people drive by Riverside without knowing what's going on there, as she did before joining the board in 2018. She says she didn't see much representation of musical performance on the board, so she felt she had a role to play.

"I have lots of connections here, in Detroit, everywhere, and I think I can bring some musical performance programs to the center," she says. 
RAC Manager of Operations Maggie Spencer and Executive Director Amy Fracker in the theater at RAC.
Fracker would eventually like to have a RAC choir, but Johnson plans to start more modestly with a small vocal ensemble. 

"Sometime in spring of next year, my vision is to start off an ensemble composed of young adults," Johnson says. "I can see it being a beautiful part of Riverside, performing locally in different styles from jazz to gospel to classical to hip-hop."

Initially, the ensemble will perform at Riverside, but there will likely be opportunities for the group to travel.

"Washtenaw County is full of music, so it won't be hard to find places to perform," Johnson says. "I hope it will help people understand and get to know Riverside Arts Center and get the name out there even more. Music takes you so many places in your life."

The vocal ensemble will just be one part of an expanded musical curriculum if RAC staff and board members have their way.

"We're going to sit down and brainstorm and put our musical minds together," Johnson says. "I could see vocal instruction, music appreciation, instrumental classes. There are endless possibilities."

Fracker says she wants the community to be involved in shaping the future of RAC. She hasn't done any formal focus groups or listening sessions, but has pondered sending out surveys. She says she has gotten great feedback from meeting with various groups and asking what they'd like to see Riverside offer.

"I really want to ask our community, 'What is it that you want from us?'" Fracker says. "We're concentrating on how to make Riverside Arts Center a dynamic community arts center."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.