Recently Sue Roseman had the difficult task of contacting the over 300 artists she represents to tell them that after 18 years of business Riverbank Arts Gallery is closing. I am among those artists and share with them a collective grief for this loss. More than a loss of an exhibition venue, it is a loss to the art community of Bucks and Hunterdon counties. Though the gallery was able to keep its head above the rising waters of the Delaware and the lousy economy, it lost out when its lease for the space was not renewed under new ownership.
Riverbank Arts was established in 1994 when Peter Errico approached Sue Roseman about starting a gallery together in the Stockton location where his family once ran a grocery store. Sue had run a gallery prior in Glenside called Amaranth and at the time was curating the shows at the Café in Rosemont. Together they established Riverbank Arts on Bridge Street. Originally they were in the basement of a building that frequently got flooded. In 2006 they were able to move next door to the prominent street-front location.
Bolstered by Peter’s assiduous support, Susan’s vision was to have a gallery with a standard for quality that was inclusive and gave many artists a chance to exhibit. Susan has operated the gallery with a sincere understanding of the struggles and ambitions of an artistic life, as she and her husband, James Feehan, are also practicing artists. She and Peter handle the artwork in the gallery and introduce it to visitors with a profound respect for its creators.
It is not a truism that all gallery owners love art, in fact a jaded detachment can seem pervasive in this profession. But Susan’s love of art is still palpable and the gallery brims with a celebratory air. This affection can make it hard for Susan to decline artwork, as is apparent with the vast inventory that heaves out of every corner and fills every inch of wall space. Rather than becoming thoughtless clutter though, everything has been lovingly arranged and rearranged. I am always delighted to see that walls are recurated each time I visit. With such an eclectic array of work, somehow Susan always makes the different attitudes play nicely together.
Though some of the artwork hanging at Riverbank makes my toes curl, I still find the democracy of Riverbank encouraging. I can enjoy a gallery that purifies a singular vision and defines its terms by a particular aesthetic creed. But there is something endearing and courageous about a space like Riverbank that forfeits that elitism in order to reveal the larger community of the arts. Every artist is waging a private battle for their creativity and it’s both humbling and heartening to see the common struggle through diversity. In that light, Riverbank Arts has always been more about fostering the artistic community than product branding. Susan has been a tireless advocate for her artists, and a trusted ambassador to her clients. For the arts to remain relevant, communication between its players must be fluid and Susan has been a major catalyst for that flow. Her fingerprints are all over the circuitry of our local arts culture as she continually fosters connections, disseminates opportunities and periodically plays matchmaker.
For many artists, myself included, Riverbank was the originator of an artistic career. For established artists it was a venerable place to show in a region known for its artistic intrigue. Susan and Peter have received many emails in the recent weeks by artists reflecting on their early successes granted by their relationship to Riverbank and stunned by its premature expiration. When Susan was recovering from surgery last year I spent some time minding the gallery and saw first hand the outpouring of sympathy from the Riverbank community.
An artist often dreams of an ideal venue for their artwork— a space that would allow the artwork to communicate its’ intentions directly with clarity and reverence. But an artist also fears that their artwork will find no support at all and will diminish into a pit of obscurity. Sadly the terrors have more likelihood of being realized than the ideals. Where the ideal of a single artist is far too improbable, Riverbank has maintained the ideal of showcasing the arts as a community and has succeeded in that way. It has become a place that so many people care about because it is an institution that cares for so many people. Even as in its final weeks of operation, Riverbank Arts is still receiving new artwork, still open seven days a week and still maintaining the quality and enthusiasm it always has. Hopefully the support of its community will allow Riverbank to find another incarnation down the road.