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COCA celebrates Riven's tenure, looks ahead

This article first apeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2010 - When Stephanie Riven agreed, in 1986, to go to work for a new arts venture in University City, she hardly imagined she'd end up running the Center of Creative Arts as we know it today. Her acquaintance, Richard Baron of real estate development firm McCormack Baron Salazar, told her he'd bought a building and wanted to establish an arts incubator, supporting emerging talent; and Riven was game to give it a try - "a collaboration among friends," as she describes it.

COCA opened the following year, offering a few dance, music and drama classes, with a total enrollment of 40 students. At the time, Riven says, "I was not an artist, not an administrator and certainly not an arts administrator."

No matter her lack of experience - 23 years later - Riven has passed to her successor, newly minted executive director Kelly Lamb Pollock, a nationally recognized organization with a $5 million budget supporting 500 classes, camps and workshops and a roster of 300 full-time and adjunct faculty members, serving 50,000 St. Louisans each year.

COCA's impressive growth - it's the fifth largest organization of its kind in the U.S. - began with a willingness to take risks and a decade-long focus on the "product." At first, classes were aimed at simply exposing students to the arts, but as the program grew, so did the demand for more advanced, pre-professional training.

Throughout her tenure, Riven has pursued the means and methods to cement COCA's commitment to equity, accessibility and quality. Today, COCA offers programs in 50 public schools, taking free arts education where it's needed. Students receive scholarships to attend classes and camps. Tuition covers less than half of the cost of annual operations, with the rest coming from donations, grant funding and sales of tickets to a variety of performance series, allowing COCA to provide $1 million in outreach every year.

The design of the class schedule itself also extends COCA's reach. As director of marketing Nancy Goldstein explains, COCA has "multiple points of entry," accommodating students with different levels of commitment, talent and financial resources with both recreational and conservatory-level offerings.

Beginner classes are available to all ages and set up so a 40-something doesn't have to begin her education in hip-hop in a room full of 7-year-olds - and vice versa. COCA also aims to bring those who were once artists back into the classroom, providing advanced instruction that doesn't require a 6-days-a-week schedule, to accommodate busy lives.

When Goldstein joined COCA in 1993, the program design took her by surprise, as some classes didn't yield enough tuition to cover the cost of running them: "My initial reaction was that you must be doing something wrong if you can't make money on it. Isn't that a failure?"

But with Riven's guidance, she came to understand that offering a class to just three students can make perfect sense if it achieves a goal beyond the bottom line: keeping the arts in the lives of as many St. Louisans as possible.

Why is this mission so important to Riven?

The arts, she says, "give kids a voice to say what they think is important. ... one can learn not just the dance steps, but their own expressive nature." In art, there is no wrong answer, and students "become more willing to think out of the box. They become," like Riven herself, "people willing to take risks." The arts teach, to students of any age, discipline, persistence and engagement. One of Riven's greatest rewards in her time as executive director has been "to see kids turn into artists."

When Riven announced that she would be leaving COCA, Goldstein says the staff wasn't entirely surprised. Running the organization is intense and demanding, and "Stephanie bore the brunt of that for 23 years." It was time for her "to step back and take the weight of the world off her shoulders."

COCA conducted an international search for Riven's replacement, but found the best candidate in the office down the hall. As general manager, Pollack was already involved in running all facets of the operation, and Goldstein says the staff had naturally begun to look to her for answers.

"One of the most outstanding people that I worked with in my tenure with COCA is Kelly Pollock," Riven says of her successor, "I am thrilled that she has taken the position of executive director. I always say that she is my role model - I have learned so much from her over the years. It is a great opportunity for her and for the institution."

Pollock took over in July, and the transition has been smooth, Goldstein says. In fact, it hasn't drawn as much attention to the organization as she might have hoped. Still, "Stephanie was the face of COCA for 23 years. For a lot of people, COCA equals Stephanie."

Goldstein's challenge, then, is to make sure the public knows that COCA is alive and well. To do just that, and more important, to honor Riven's decades of service, COCA will host two events during the first weekend in October, together called "COCA 360: The Shape of Things to Come."

On Friday, Oct. 1, a gala fundraiser, "Come Party," will support COCA's Urban Arts and Scholarship Programs, as well as the newly established Stephanie Riven Legacy Fund. The fund was created to retire the debt on COCA's recent building renovations, a major goal of Riven's. Toward that end, Emerson Electric has pledged a $300,000 "challenge match," promising $1 for every $2 contributed in corporate or individual gifts.

On Saturday, Oct. 2, "Come Play" - free and open to the public - will take place in the COCA parking lot. There will be dance classes beginning each hour (including parent and toddler, creative movement and hip hop), sidewalk chalk mural making, a mini school fair, and food and drink, among other family-oriented activities.

The celebration will also feature the debut of "Currents," an "experience design" installation in the COCA lobby produced by a collaboration between local sculptor and visual artist Jill Downen and interdisciplinary design studio act3. In the words of act3's Ben Kaplan, the piece uses theatrical lighting and soundscapes, triggered by audience participation, to "bring to life the multi-faceted components of the organization."

Since stepping down as executive director, Riven has remained involved with the goings on at COCA, especially with students. She won't be leaving St. Louis, but has taken a position with David Bury Associates, a New York-based arts management consulting firm, that will allow her to bring her expertise to organizations across the country. She'll also spend the coming spring semester in Cambridge, Mass., as a visiting practitioner at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Goldstein isn't surprised to see Riven continuing to pursue quality in arts education. While some, she says, might have sought a director's position in another branch of the nonprofit world, Riven "was always involved because she loves the arts."

"She's interested in the arts for their intrinsic value.

"She's interested in the arts as a means for youth development, especially in the area of arts integration: How can the arts be integrated in the school curriculum?


"She's interested in the arts from the performing standpoint: What that does in terms of self realization and expression.

"She's interested in the arts from the standpoint of an audience member: What can you learn by sitting in the audience, by watching and listening and being exposed to a new art form?

"She's interested in the arts in terms of problem solving: Wow it can make you look at your world and life in a different way.

"That passion," Goldstein says, "and that strong focus, is something that really drove us for many years."

Margaux Wexberg Sanchez is a freelance writer. 

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