The year is 1984 and the Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans surely was the big talk all over the state—even the Space Shuttle Enterprise was on exhibit that year. In Alexandria, however, something else was in the works—arguably with a longer lasting impact, at least in the Central Louisiana area. River Oaks was scheduled to open its doors as a non-profit organization with a mission of promoting contemporary visual arts and fine crafts, offering economical studio space for working artists and rotating exhibitions. Only five years prior, in 1979, the City of Alexandria received the historic Bolton Home (c.1899) as a donation under an agreement that it would solely be used for the arts. The renovations had taken a while, but the arts center was ready for prime time.
The humble beginnings of those early years are what shaped River Oaks—a mission to make the most impact and serve as many people as possible, transforming lives through the arts. Both artists and the community quickly embraced the concept and River Oaks became a creative spark and a catalyst for the arts right in Downtown Alexandria. Over the next ten years, the Bolton Home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and two of the events visitors will recognize to this day were added to the program.
In 1989, the First Annual Van Gogh Gala set the stage as a premiere fundraising event for the arts and the arts center. Van Gogh Gala is River Oaks’ largest annual fundraiser. This themed-attire Gala provides the perfect opportunity for community members and patrons to become “Star Artists” for an evening. Star Artists are matched with a River Oaks Resident Artist or Local Artist for the creation of a masterpiece. Some artists contribute their own works to the live auction. All masterpieces are placed on the auction block during an exciting live auction on the evening of the Gala with all proceeds benefiting the ongoing operations of River Oaks Square Arts Center. Community participation helps support and promote the importance of contemporary visual art and fine crafts in our community. Past themes have included “Day of the Dead”, “A Gothic Evening on the Bayou”, and “Cirque de Van Gogh”.
“Van Gogh is really the ultimate representation of our mission–our resident artists become mentors and help star artists produce an array of unique artwork. The star artists come from all walks of life. They are volunteers, community members and business leaders and over the years quite a few have discovered a newfound, creative calling,” says Rachael Dauzat, Executive Director at River Oaks. “These exclusive pieces are featured in an exciting live auction and while Van Gogh continues to be the arts center’s largest fundraiser, the most fulfilling aspect of this event is the actual incorporation of our mission.”
In 1994, the Annual Summer Art Programs were introduced as multi-disciplined classes for youth. These programs evolved into Summer Arts Studio, the longest running visual arts summer camp in Central Louisiana. For over 25 years now, summers at River Oaks mean one thing— over 180 young creatives will come through our doors during June and July. Students have an opportunity to learn the fundamentals of visual arts through a variety of media, but that’s just the beginning—they depart more comfortable with their own creativity and the ability to express themselves. Summer Arts Studio has served children that are now adults and have even returned as instructors! Heartwarming, to say the least.
Looking to infuse visual arts into every household in the area, the Annual Christmas Porch Sale was added in 1995, allowing people from the entire region to buy art for their holiday gift giving. River Oaks was growing. So much, in fact, that in 1999 a 15,000 square foot Studio Annex Building was opened to meet the expanding and changing needs of the Arts Center, prompting the legislature to establish a cultural arts district for downtown Alexandria. What started out as studios for a few turned into studios for many with the arts center currently housing space for over 35 resident artists.
With the expansion, River Oaks became more visible and was embraced as a community favorite. The next year, shortly after Y2K proved to be more harmless than the porch kittens at the arts center, the First Annual Men Who Cook Fundraiser made its debut and quickly earned its way to becoming a culinary classic. While records are foggy as to what was served that year, we are almost certain it involved thousands of calories and probably a little Cajun cuisine borrowed from the French cousins in Avoyelles Parish. Men Who Cook & Men Who Mix (#MWCAM) invites local food enthusiasts, chefs and guys who simply love to cook to prepare their favorite food or drink recipes for taste testing. The event draws a crowd of well over 500 people each year. Dubbed as a “culinary classic,” MWCAM is a ton of fun for all involved, from the chefs to its organizers. If you want to showcase your culinary expertise or if you want a plethora of taste testing options, attend this annual event—always held on the third Saturday in May!
River Oaks was also the recipient of the Governor’s Art Award for Outstanding Large Arts Organization from the Louisiana State Arts Council that year, proudly presented by Governor Mike Foster. River Oaks has been recognized by the State’s Leadership every year since through a multitude of granting opportunities and featured spotlights.
Starting in 2001, the Arts Center expanded its role as a Public Art Advocate and Facilitator aiding numerous regional entities with large-scale installations, all of which have found their way into numerous magazines and after the invention of Instagram, millions of selfies. In 2005, River Oaks paved the way for an on-site Arts Academy, offering continuous educational extensions in addition to exhibitions. Artists, you see, love to learn new things and River Oaks was not about to leave their artists wanting.
Art transforms the lives for all involved. In recognition of this fact new Outreach Programs for underserved populations of the community were created in 2009, directly impacting youth, seniors and developmentally disabled clients. These programs have served hundreds of individuals throughout the region by introducing them to art as an outlet and a medium for self expression. Years of local and regional involvement and outreach prepared River Oaks for the jump to a national stage.
In 2015, River Oaks did just that, launching two National Artists Calls in the same year. The Dirty South Cup Call & Competition (ceramics) and The Annual 5x5x5 Show (miniature works) are featuring renowned guest jurors and over 200 collective works from artists across the US every year since. In the following years, River Oaks was also chosen to be the recipient of the Alexandria Pineville Arts, Culture, Heritage and Education Award in 2016 and Cenla Focus Best of Cenla Readers Choice Award for Best Art Exhibition, Dirty South Cup Call & Competition in 2018.
All that has brought River Oaks to 2019—35 years strong and looking forward to many more! This includes welcoming every single one of the over 20,000 people that will explore the arts center and its multitude of programming during a given year. And that’s only the beginning! River Oaks will also be showcasing the works from over 300+ renowned international, regional and local artists in 18 exhibitions annually. “This treasure we call River Oaks Square Arts Center was poised to do great things, enriching the lives of others through art! A major milestone, we love how we have grown over the past 35 years and thank you wholeheartedly for supporting this creative hub!” states Rachael Dauzat, Executive Director.
River Oaks extends special thanks to The City of Alexandria, Louisiana Division of the Arts, National Endowment of the Arts, Greater Alexandria Economic Development Authority, Arts Council of Central LA, our corporate community and River Oaks’ Board of Directors, Members, Volunteers and Cenla’s ever-growing arts community. #35YearsArtsStrong