Midway through the opening reception for Vernissage XIV, Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association’s (RIVAA) season opener in March, 2015, RIVAA President, Tad Sudol, called a packed gathering of art lovers and artists together in a group.
“It’s no secret that we’ve been closed for the last six weeks,” he opened soberly.
The group was struggling to pay the rent, utilities, and expenses necessary to maintain the quality of shows established, and Sudol felt compelled to describe the (mostly dark) scenarios on the horizon.
But that was last year, and the occasion for Sudol’s remarks evolved to become the nadir from which RIVAA rebounded with vigor.
Among many positive contributions that made a difference in the intervening months, the Public Purpose funds approved by the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) and distributed by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) bridged a gap with much needed cash.
A growing, fertile partnership with Cornell NYC Tech also helped keep the doors open as exciting new exhibits opened on schedule for the rest of 2015.
Peter D. Gerakaris’s gallery-filling Tropicália, a landmark show that drew wide press recognition, marked Cornell Tech’s official groundbreaking in June. More quietly, a grateful recognition of RIVAA founder Arline Jacoby’s 90th birthday seasoned the year with a spice of optimism anchored in tradition.
Today, dynamic exhibits, Winter Treasures and Winter Treasures 2 fill the main gallery at 527 Main Street and Octagon Gallery at 888 Main Street respectively. In what RIVAA calls “Gallery 3,” large artworks, largely created during Fall for Arts festivals, uplift Motorgate from a dreary concrete shell into a space where murals brighten public spaces.
A return to presenting exhibits keyed to Black History Month is planned for February, and Vernissage, this year, will be a milestone: RIVAA’s 15th “varnishing,” the literal French interpretation, in which its members introduce all new work and set a tone for the coming year, one certain to be brighter than the last.
RIVAA has always floated on a wave of creative optimism.
A loose fellowship of artists got acquainted while coalescing around Arline Jacoby’s vision to brand our small town as the “Island of Art.”
By the time she led the pioneering Art Frenzy experience in 2001, Jacoby established a career as not just an artist but also a teacher and art administrator. She brought her skills to staging an exhibit of local works on the walls of PS/IS 217, part of broader initiative that saw Red Buses, the Tram and subway shuttling art enthusiasts between coordinated exhibits in Manhattan and Queens. Roosevelt Island sat at the heart of it, long and lean in the middle of the river that links both boroughs.
Invigorated by this success, Jacoby joined forces with fellow artists and founding members, Tad Sudol, Harry Small, and Esther Piaskowski, along with local attorney, Phillip Groner, to press RIOC to support a permanent art resource as part of its role in developing the community.
They were lucky to find an instant supporter in RIOC’s then president, Robert Ryan. With Ryan’s backing, the embryonic association took over the space that Bigelow Pharmacy had just left, still RIVAA’s current location, and put their minds and bodies to work, building the gallery space out from a vision.
Floors were ripped and replaced, and windows, designed by architect Sudol, became not just windows to the world on Main Street but Roosevelt Island’s welcome to visitors and residents entering the center of town.
What they created is the still impressive space at street level in front of Rivercross. Before each show, a team led by veteran artists, Valeriu Boborelu and Ioan Popoiu, clean, spackle and paint the space afresh to give new art fresh atmosphere.
“We are in good shape, right now,” Sudol reported, sitting in RIVAA’s tiny office space with fellow board members, Popoiu and Esther Piaskowski.
A new three-year lease has recently been signed with Hudson-Related, the company responsible for our commercial spaces.
“Hudson is very important to us,” Sudol adds. “David Kramer tries hard to recognize our value to the look of Main Street and the community. Our windows are crucial.”
Kramer is president of Hudson Companies, a high profile city developer, and his taking time to work directly with RIVAA is no small thing.
As support for RIVAA’s mission goes, neither is the $9,000 dollars in public purpose funds funneled from RIOC after approval by RIRA. Roosevelt Island’s public purpose money started with a deposit by Manhattan Park, in lieu of sales taxes on construction materials, and has grown as new buildings rise. Because rulings handed down from a distant, apparently disinterested Cuomo administration in Albany made the distribution shaky in recent years, 2016’s speedy, kink-free process was especially welcome.
Cornell Loves RIVAA
Asked about Cornell Tech’s partnership with the gallery, Piaskowski told The WIRE, “We couldn’t be luckier with such a person as Jane Swanson,” Cornell’s Assistant Director of Government and Community Relations.
Swanson is often present at gallery openings and has been a consistently supportive liaison.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Sudol added. “Esther and I were listening to the groundbreaking speeches and, right there, on stage with Bloomberg and De Blasio, Dan Huttenlocher mentioned RIVAA, not once, but three times, as an example of community outreach.”
Huttenlocher is Cornell Tech’s first Dean. He along with Cathy Dove, since appointed as second in command, and Swanson have followed through on the university’s initial promises to the community. Currently, Cornell uses RIVAA Gallery space to keep the community informed about campus construction.
This partnership’s most visible reward to date has been Gerakaris’s show coinciding with the Cornell Tech groundbreaking, funded by Cornell. As Tropicália helped turn the corner for RIVAA’s future, it preserved a legacy of contributions by the artists’ group that extends beyond what they bring to Main Street.
RIVAA In The Community
RIVAA’s hands at work on the Island include the routine events of conducting tours of the gallery, introducing art up close to kids from PS/IS 217, and weekly workshops conducted by internationally recognized RIVAA member, Valeriu Boborelu.
In 2005, at the Gallery, RIVAA hosted Coming to Light, an exhibit that introduced The Louis I. Kahn Monument to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the design which gave rebirth to the Island’s southern tip as Four Freedoms Park.
Advancing their mission of community outreach, the gallery has participated with RIOC in its annual Fall for Arts Festival. Most visibly, RIVAA artists and others paint large murals all day in the lawn south of Rivercross. They stand, weather permitting, as a gateway for visitors and locals who benefit from an imaginative view.
Notably, RIOC originally resisted the mural idea, protesting, “It will be damaged in two days,” yet RIVAA’s faith in the community and determination prevailed. Since RIOC Vice President, Katherine Johnson, agreed to take a chance and lend support in 2006, the colorful images have decorated every autumn.
Not much later, the murals’ lives were given extended life by being moved to homes in Motorgate. This time, RIOC Community Relations Specialist, Erica Spencer-El, and local board members, Margie Smith and David Kraut, donated muscle and support to complete the project.
Within a framework of community involvement, RIVAA moves closer each year to its visions of an Island of Art.
Come April, Roosevelt Islanders will see a monumental addition to Sudol’s intention of making our home something of a sculpture park. Working with RIOC General Counsel, Susan Rosenthal, and resident board member Mike Shinozaki, RIVAA has arranged for a major new installation, Gustav Kraitz’s Blue Dragon, a sculpture measuring 9 X 3 feet, to be placed near the entrance to Southpoint Park.
A Hungarian born artist, Kraitz survived a Soviet forced labor camp in 1945 and eventually settled in Sweden. He is best known in New York for Hope, his sculpture completed in honor of Swedish World War II hero, Raul Wallenberg.It occupies space at 47th Street and First Avenue, facing the United Nations. Kraitz was invited for a tour of Roosevelt Island by resident and RIVAA associate, Elisabeth Stapen, two years back.
“He fell in love with the Island,” Sudol reports, quoting the artist: “Let me be the first to donate a work.”
That work is Blue Dragon. It will face his other piece near the United Nations and bring additional tourism across the river.
“It’s the first step in bringing other sculptures from other artists,” Sudol, who eagerly promotes the project, told The WIRE.
But equally important is the schedule of upcoming exhibits, starting with the Black History Month-themed show for February and extending into 2017.
Jazz salons where music meets visual arts, and windows filled with artists’ works, curated by Popoiu, that add color to what was once the hardware store at 544, will add spice and accent to Main Street.
The contrast with 2015’s gloomy forecast will be most evident when RIVAA pulls its diverse membership together for Vernissage XV, a tribute to perseverance, commitment and community involvement in March.