Passersby may not think much of the Davis-Corwin House on East Main Street in downtown Riverhead. Beyond the chipped dark blue doorway of the 19th-century relic, one might expect to find the personnel and literature of a historical society, unyielding in the veneration of the past, ignorant to the now.
But this is not the case. The historic home is East End Arts’ Main Gallery. On the ground floor, the “Horizons” member show is currently on display.
Founded in 1972 by Allene Carey, Elizabeth Richards and others in the community, the nonprofit has grown into an arts organization with multiple gallery locations throughout Riverhead, numerous annual events and art and music education programs.
Upstairs in one large office are staff dedicated to cultivating community through gallery exhibitions and annual programs and events that attract people from all walks of life, not simply those with the creative eye, the painter’s touch or pockets deep enough for an art collection. Their largest annual event, the Mosaic Street Painting Festival — during which people use chalk to create masterpieces on Main Street’s sidewalks and pavement — draws its most diverse crowd.
“It’s all skills of art, some are just 3-year-olds doing their thing, getting covered head to toe, with huge grins on their face,” creative director Wendy Weiss said. “And then there’s some that come with teams of artists with an art director and the whole team does it and it’s amazing.”
While these annual events are about community, the East End Arts staff must also be mindful of dollars and sense. The team has to ensure the organization can sustain itself. Among other efforts, development director Paul Johnson is working to secure a sponsor for this year’s street painting festival.
“It’s this absolutely wonderful program that brings thousands of people to the downtown arts district and we just haven’t had any notable sponsor for it,” he said. “That’s just something I’m working really hard on doing this year, just making people aware that we have this absolutely incredible program and we’d love to have more people attached to it.”
Heeding the motto “Unlock Creativity, Build Community,” the staff prides itself on what it calls “creative placemaking.” Essentially, the goal is to make downtown Riverhead a vibrant cultural center to boost the local economy. “We run it like a business,” Weiss said. “We want to be constantly solving problems, creating more connections, creating interesting things.
“We work a lot with our community: local businesses, the town, the county,” she continued. “We try not to stay in a vacuum. We’re always looking bigger and beyond.”
In running teen art and music programs, East End Arts also looks to the future. A short walk along a cobblestone path from the Davis-Corwin House lies the Benjamin House.
On its second floor, education director Kathleen Dwyer Ruscick keeps track of enrollment and scholarships. After her arrival in 2020, she developed the MLK Portrait Project, which calls on local high school art students to develop a mosaic portrait of a civil rights leader. “Each portrait gets auctioned off,” Ruscick said. “The starting bid is $200, and every single penny that we get in for any of these portraits goes right into the art scholarship.”
From its music education scholarship fund, the organization doles out thousands of dollars annually, typically awarded to cover 50% or 100% of the student’s costs. East End Arts executive director Diane Burke believes this is a paramount mission for the organization.
“That is our business,” she said. “It’s our business to raise money to create scholarships to create experiences to support people in the community.”
For both art and music education, East End Arts calls on revered instructors to guide the next generation of creatives through programming that actually strikes teens’ interests. Students can learn to draw manga-style art in the sequential drawing class and understand the stage presence and musicianship necessary to survive in a rock band courtesy of Bakithi Kumalo, a world-renowned musician perhaps best known for his work playing bass with Paul Simon.
Among other programs, the organization also hosts the Teeny Awards, which celebrate excellence in student theater productions, and the PerformHER fundraiser with the Peconic Ballet Theatre.
While teen programs are an integral part of East End Arts’ mission, the nonprofit also offers adult art and music classes. After all, the arts are for everyone; just ask Ruscick, whose office walls are lined with paintings she and her children have made.
“You have to be able to go sit down with the piano, sit down with a paintbrush, doodle,” Ruscick said. “Doing something like that, your mental health depends on it.
“It doesn’t even have to come out good,” she continued. “I don’t think the world could survive without art and music.”
Anyone who would like to help East End Arts should consider becoming a member or making a monetary donation to foster their arts education and community initiatives.