At the start of 2020, the world was pretty much the way we left it in 2019. But the months since the pandemic took hold have seen our world change dramatically.
A face covering is required when entering most public spaces. Social distancing – a little known concept half a year ago – dictates how humans congregate outside their homes. And even the simplest of words and phrases have taken on a completely different meaning.
If a business displays a sign that says “OPEN,” it can be hard to know exactly what that means. Do you have to reserve a time in advance? Order from home? Call from your car? Wait on the sidewalk?
Well, in the case of the Riverfront Renaissance Center for the Arts, OPEN means the Center is open. Open Tuesday through Sunday, from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Open to view the current exhibits – “In the Now” group exhibit, “Do You See Me?” by Sydnei Smithjordan, Watercolors by Susan Hanna Rau, and Acrylics by Paula Pagliughi. And, open to enjoy the ever-popular event, 3rd Friday @Riverfront Renaissance, that resumed with a live-and-in-person reception on Friday, August 21 to celebrate the opening of the current exhibits.
According to Diane Roberts, the art center’s Executive Director, the opening was a success. Although pandemic protocols (masks, social distancing, 25-person limit inside the space) were strictly enforced, the new-normal rules were taken in stride.
“The reception was quite well attended,” Roberts said, “and the limit on the number of people inside was not a problem.” The art center has entrances in the front and the back, which allowed for a good flow, and the gift shop was also open, giving visitors an additional place to be during the event.
“We also used the Glasstown Plaza, which is right outside our back door,” Roberts said, “so we set up tables and chairs and served snacks there.”
“We even had local musicians playing,” she said. “It was so nice to have this normal thing.”
The pandemic has presented serious challenges for organizations and businesses that cater to the public, and this is especially true of a place like RRCA, which serves a diverse audience and regularly works closely with other local organizations.
But throughout this trying time, when some organizations were forced to close their doors, RRCA was able to stay active and involved. Roberts, “the only employee at the moment,” is pleased with how the center has made the on-site-to-remote transition.
“When we had to cancel the children’s classes, we shifted to virtual art education and created the Kids’ Art Challenge,” Roberts said. “We picked a theme and randomly chose three ‘winners’ from the entries to receive art supplies. Then it caught on. Now we do a new challenge every other week.”
Roberts said the feedback from parents has been great. “One mother whose child won the art supplies said her daughter spent the whole afternoon mixing colors.” (Check out some of the artwork on the Kids’ Gallery page)
There are also virtual adult art classes and activities with senior citizens. “After the local Senior Center had to close, we worked with their coordinator and provided the seniors with art supply kits and video lessons created by one of the art center’s instructors.”
“The arts are so important,” she continued. “This is not just an arts center, it is truly a community center.”
The goings-on inside the RRCA are definitely art-centered, with a strong base of artist members, four distinct gallery spaces, nine artist studios, an ADA compliant first-floor classroom, and a fantastic gift shop that features an impressive array of artist-crafted items.
But the physical building – formerly a string of abandoned storefronts – is itself an important community resource. It serves as a convenient meeting place for groups from throughout the region, like the Native Plant Society of New Jersey and the Girl Scouts, as a rehearsal space for theatre groups, and as an occasional venue for music events.
“The people who need us know that we are here,” Roberts said.
“We partner with several organizations, including Rowan College South Jersey (RCSJ), which is downtown, and the Millville Public Library, which is just a block over.”
“We also collaborated in the past – and hope to again – with RCSJ on the Cumberland County/Cape May County Teen Arts Festival, as well as on a summer art camp with Rowan’s Clay College.”
If it sounds like the RRCA has many exciting balls in the air, that is in part due to Roberts’s passion for the place and for what it means to the community.
Roberts said that one of the best things about her job is being around so many creative people and experiencing, first-hand, the effect art can have on someone’s life.
“We have to keep going strong. Our facility is going to be more important than ever now.”
And, even with the RRCA’s robust schedule of activities and programs, Roberts and the center’s Board strive to expand and grow.
“One of my strengths – and weaknesses – is that I rarely say ‘no’,” said Roberts. “We are always open to new things.”