FEATURES • Summer 2002

Making arts education the Center of Contemporary Arts' primary mission, executive director Stephanie Riven has extended COCA's reach—giving thousands of children and adults in the St. Louis community an opportunity to dance, play music, and create art.

By Betsy Rogers

The history of the Center of Contemporary Arts (COCA) in St. Louis is a parable of transformation. COCA itself has been transformed under the dynamic leadership of executive director Stephanie Riven, and its dramatic growth also mirrors personal metamorphoses in the lives of its students.

Consider Rodney Hamilton. Hamilton was a St. Louis youngster with a gift for dance, but his great potential was threatened by the perils of inner-city life. Then he received a scholarship to COCA's pre-professional dance program, and he blossomed. One day, COCAdance, the student company, performed at Juvenile Court, and Hamilton saw among the defendants one of his best friends. "If it hadn't been for dance," he told Riven, "I'd probably be on the other side."

Now completing his senior year at New York's Juilliard School, Hamilton looks to a bright future.

The COCA community understands and appreciates that kind of life-changing experience. When Riven, A.B. '69, M.S. '71, arrived at COCA in 1987, she began its education program with 40 students and a staff of four. Riven, who brought a vision for a world-class community arts center, had a commitment to creating it. Today, COCA has more than 100 faculty members, 35 staff members, and 17,000 students; its enrollment climbs by 10 percent each year. Altogether, COCA serves some 75,000 area residents with its education, gallery, theater, dance, and urban arts programs.

"We wanted to offer something for every age, in every discipline—and to provide programming to everyone, not just those who could pay tuition. Everything we do revolves around arts education. ..."

A native of Nashville, Riven came to St. Louis to study at Washington University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in speech and hearing at the Central Institute for the Deaf. She worked for five years as director of services for handicapped children in the Head Start program in St. Louis and then maintained a private practice in speech and hearing, which gave her the flexibility to care for her two young sons, Josh and Sam.

But by 1987 her children were growing up, and she was ready to return to the work force full time. Richard Baron, COCA's founder and president of the real estate development firm McCormack Baron and Associates, asked Riven to join COCA and organize its new arts classes. It proved to be the beginning of 15 years of innovation and sustained growth at COCA.

"When I came to COCA, I knew that we had a fabulous building," she says of COCA's University City home in the historic B'nai Amoona Synagogue, designed by renowned German modernist architect Eric Mendelsohn and built in 1949. [The structure is on the National Register of Historic Places.] "And I also knew there was tremendous potential for program development," she says.

"We wanted to develop a multidisciplinary community arts center," Riven continues. "We wanted to offer something for every age, in every discipline—and to provide programming to everyone, not just those who could pay tuition. Everything we do revolves around arts education. Even in our theater series and gallery exhibitions, education is the focus."

The core value was and is exceptional quality. "We made sure we had excellent faculty," she says. "Every class provides the best instruction we can possibly offer." As new programs were created, this commitment expanded—to finding first-rate performers for the theater series, outstanding exhibits for the gallery, and more.

COCA's history demonstrates not so much "if you build it, they will come," but, in Riven's words: "If you build it with quality, they will come." COCA's programs have grown exponentially, and today the center offers:
• 275 dance classes, with 3,419 students (U. City);
• 37 theater classes, with 420 students (U. City);
• 203 summer camps in the arts, with 2,418 students (U. City);
• off-site classes and camps serving 2,000 youngsters (20 locations throughout St. Louis County);
• the Urban Arts Program, providing after-school classes, camps, computer-based arts classes, and residencies with national and local artists in inner- city schools, serving some 9,000 young people (City of St. Louis).

The Urban Arts Program is particularly close to Riven's heart. "I grew up in a family that was community-minded," she says. "As a physician, my father was very involved in community service. As I went through school and then to Washington University in the '60s, my classes addressed civil rights, fairness, and economic equality.

"Washington University really supported an atmosphere of questioning and of commitment to those less fortunate," she adds—an atmosphere that helped shape and reinforce her social conscience.

 

 

At its University City location, COCA offers 275 dance classes, with more than 3,400 students participating.

 

So over the years, Riven and others at COCA began looking at ways to take arts education to underserved groups. "We really wanted to reach out more and to offer our services free of charge," she says. COCA embarked on fundraising to develop new programs and to provide scholarships for inner-city students. Today, 345 students are on scholarship; $650,000 of the center's $3.6 million annual budget goes to outreach in city schools.

The numbers are dramatic, but other measures show how Riven's leadership has created success. Major regional and national grants have recognized COCA's effectiveness in arts education. COCA has received the Missouri Arts Award, the presidential Coming up Taller Award, the World of Difference Community Service Award, the William Randolph Hearst Foundation Endowment Award, and the St. Louis Arts & Education Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Most recently, the Urban Arts Program was one of 20 nationally to receive a three-year, $135,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the National Guild of Community Schools for the Arts.

And two grants in particular have made a difference. "The two grants that really turned us around—taking us on a new and wonderful path—came from the Surdna Foundation, based in New York, and the St. Louis-based Dula Foundation," Riven says. The Surdna Foundation's $240,000 grant to COCA's dance program was subsequently matched by the Dula Foundation.

"This allowed us to put together the pre-professional dance program, which has become a model for the country," Riven explains. "It's a model because it not only provides fabulous training and scholarships, but [it provides] a range of support services—we provide transportation and dancewear to those who can't afford it; we bring in nationally known choreographers; and we send kids during the summer to study at outstanding institutions." Dance students perform with COCAdance, the Muny, the Alexandra Ballet, Dance St. Louis, Opera Theatre of St. Louis—and others.

Rodney Hamilton was one of dozens to reap rich rewards from the program. His fellow graduates are studying at the North Carolina School of the Arts, the School of American Ballet, and the State University of New York at Purchase, as well as at Juilliard. COCA dancers have received summer scholarships to attend Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Joffrey Ballet School, and the San Francisco Ballet, among others.

Riven says, "It's been wonderful to have the opportunity to develop COCA. The organization has fabulous people on the board and a staff who really have worked hard to bring us to this point."

But, she adds, "I feel like we're just beginning. The arts should be part of every child's life—we should reach every child in St. Louis! We have a lot of work to do. We would like every child to have an opportunity to be touched by the arts."

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.

 

 

 

 

Stephanie Riven poses in front of a quilt exhibit in the Anheuser-Busch Gallery at COCA. The exhibit highlighted 20 quilts by 10 African-American women from the South.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
COCA serves more than 75,000 area residents. Below: Two adult students enjoy a watercolor painting class.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Budding actresses take part in an acting workshop.