A watercolor class in the carriage house at East End Arts. Photo: Denise Civiletti

East End Arts threw itself a little publicity party yesterday. It deserves the attention.

The 46-year-old organization has too often been taken for granted and its value as a downtown economic engine overlooked.

news analysisYet for the past three decades, every time the subject of downtown revitalization comes up, discussion always comes around to “the arts.”

As it should. The arts have fueled revitalization in city neighborhoods and towns across the United States.

In a report prepared for the New York State Council on the Arts in 1996, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company documented the impacts of the low-risk, high-yield investments in the arts for communities across the state, from Buffalo’s theater district to Saratoga Springs to Chelsea in Manhattan.

So why not Riverhead?

Chalk art at Riverhead’s popular street-painting festival File photo: Denise Civiletti

Judith Kaufman Weiner, executive director of East End Arts in the 1980s through the mid-1990s, pushed this vision for revitalizing our downtown district. She even coaxed a reluctant town board to adopt arts district zoning to allow artist “live-work” spaces downtown. (The town had previously prohibited all new residential uses in its downtown business district, a local reaction to the perception that the county was engaged in “welfare-dumping” here.)

The pursuit of an arts-driven revival downtown sparked the community effort to reopen the shuttered Suffolk Theater as a performing arts venue — an effort which ultimately failed, but which also had a happy ending for the town in the sale of the old movie palace to a private developer who restored and in 2013 reopened it as a performance venue. (This tidy little summary admittedly omits a lot of gory details.)

A drum circle during JumpstART in 2015 drew participants of all ages. File photo: Denise Civiletti

For a time, it seemed like downtown revitalization through the arts was taking off in Riverhead. Even though the Suffolk Theater remained dark, in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, an art scene was developing. The Vail-Leavitt restoration was underway, a couple or three new galleries opened up. A black box theater opened its doors. Main Street even had itself a coffee house — East Enders — where music, poetry and board games ruled. The town briefly established and supported an “arts incubator” on Main Street. And an annual blues festival drew thousands to the riverfront.

“Development of the arts ought to be a focus of Town efforts, because of the widespread interest and patronage of the arts on the East End,” Riverhead’s 2003 master plan stated. “With the presence of the East End Arts Council, the success of the Blues Festival and the summertime concert series, and the contemplated reopening of the Suffolk Theater, downtown already has the elements of an artistic center.”

Despite its promise, downtown revitalization through the arts pretty much fizzled in Riverhead. Personalities, politics and economic realities intervened. (Again, a tidy summary omitting the gory details.)

Yohanse Garcia, 11, of Riverhead takes saxophone lessons with Gene Lamendola at the East End Arts school. Photo: Denise Civiletti

But East End Arts continued to chug along.

Founded in 1972 to promote the arts on the East End, the organization originally operated out of a room at the Pulaski Street School. It moved into its current location in 1977, when the property was purchased by Northville Industries and leased to the Town of Riverhead for $1 a year. It has been a hive of downtown activity ever since.

With funding assistance from grants obtained by East End Arts, Riverhead Town has renovated and improved the historic homes and other buildings on the site, including the Fresh Pond Schoolhouse and the old carriage house, which today is used for meeting space, a recording studio and an artist’s live-work studio.

New grant funding announced yesterday by East End Arts executive director Patricia Snyder will allow for the renovation of dilapidated barn on the site, which will be transformed into a working ceramics studio — something very much in demand in the area, Snyder said.

Under Snyder’s leadership since 2001, the organization has grown and prospered.

Every year, the East End Arts gallery mounts a half-dozen shows. All but one, its annual members show, are juried exhibitions. The shows attract entries from hundreds of artists across the region. The exhibits, including an opening reception for each show, draw hundreds of visitors to Main Street each year.

The organization has several hundred artist members: painters, sculptors, photographers, multimedia artists, musicians, poets and writers. It provides them with professional services and assistance.

Its school of the arts now provides instruction to nearly a thousand students —individual and group lessons, as well as specialty camps.

“This is such a special place in our community,” Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said yesterday to a gathering inside the East End Arts gallery. “The arts enhance downtown and the town can help enhance the arts here,” she said. East End Arts, she said, is “a great gem.”

Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith speaks about the role of the arts in downtown revitalization during an event in the East End Arts gallery. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Yesterday’s event, billed as a “Media Day at East End Arts” with the town supervisor, featured representatives of Peconic Crossing, the new rent-stabilized, workforce housing apartment building nearing completion on West Main Street. Artists will be given preference for the 45 apartments there and the new building will feature a ground-floor gallery to be managed by East End Arts.

Interest in the rental apartments was overwhelming: the developer received 901 applications, with 101 of them from people who identified themselves as artists. A lottery drawing was held June 1 and now the developer, with the assistance of a committee put together by East End Arts, is vetting the applicants.

Jens-Smith during her campaign for office last year sharply criticized the high-density, multistory construction in downtown advocated by then-incumbent supervisor Sean Walter. She called it a “white elephant plan for downtown Riverhead” and accused the incumbent of being “hell-bent on bringing Jericho Turnpike-style planning to our historic downtown.”

The zoning to allow five-story buildings and up to 500 rental apartments on Main Street was adopted in 2004, pursuant to the 2003 master plan, during the administration of former supervisor Phil Cardinale.

View of the Peconic Crossing building from Grangebel Park. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Yesterday, Jens-Smith’s comments indicated a change of heart about downtown development — at least as far as concerns Peconic Crossing, which she heralded as “the beginning of a new chapter in this town, the beginning of something really special. The walkable downtown is what everybody is looking for,” she said. “It’s quite exciting.”

The town board recently gave the go-ahead on a public art project for Grangebel Park, “Reflections,” a collaboration of East End Getaway, the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce, the Riverhead BID Management Association and East End Arts. The arts organization has hosted other art-driven community events, including JumpstART — which led to the creation of several very visible murals on downtown buildings — and the perennial favorite Community Mosaic Street Painting Festival, initiated by Snyder in 1996 when she ran the school of the arts and still going strong after 22 years.

Bob Barta, president of Vail-Leavitt Music Hall spoke yesterday about the importance of community to artists. Artists feed off the energy created, he said. It’s something he’s seen over and over again during his long career as a musician.

Brady Rymer, a Grammy-nominated musician who has taught a “Music Masters Series” for teens at East End Arts, agreed. It creates a special energy, he said.

“It’s multiplicative,” Barta said. “The cross-pollination of ideas, the energy of it.”

Barta and Rymer exchanged stories yesterday with Rick DeLuca, a music instructor at East End Arts who also serves as chief engineer for its recording studio inside the carriage house. The studio includes a live performance space the three veteran musicians said they love.

“Just jamming —  the improv,” said DeLuca. “That’s when the magic happens.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.