Riverside

From Y to Art: The History of the Riverside Art Museum and the Life Arts Center

Historic Ymca

Physical expression comes in many forms, from the beauty of an arm arcing to spike a volleyball to the swoop of paint across a canvas. Two buildings in downtown Riverside embody this multiplicity, transforming over time from shrines of physical fitness to temples of physical art.

The Riverside Art Museum looks like it could be a Mediterranean villa, with its slender pillars and iron balconies, but it was originally a YWCA designed by famed Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan in 1929. One block south, the imposing red brick, arched-window Italian Renaissance building that houses the Life Arts Center was once Riverside's first YMCA, designed by Mission Inn architect Arthur Benton in 1909. Six decades ago, men and women could be found swimming and performing calisthenics and renting cheap, safe rooms for the night in their respective buildings; today, those same buildings are filled with art--in one case, carefully curated work; in the other, local works in progress.

Each building vibrates with the history of so many bodies expressing themselves within its walls, and each has weathered its share of controversy.

Riverside Art Museum | Photo: Courtesy of Riverside Art Museum.

In the 1920s, the YWCA had to switch building sites twice due to petitions from local property owners. Frank Miller, owner of the Mission Inn, donated a portion of the finalized property, but he became a thorn in the women's side. He wanted the YWCA to be built in a style similar to his hotel and the nearby Riverside Municipal Auditorium, and wanted a local male architect to draw up the plans. "Frank Miller had his vision for downtown Riverside," says Laura Klure, author of Let's Be Doers: A History of the YWCA of Riverside, "and the women of the YWCA did not cooperate with that vision." It was important to the YWCA directors to have a woman design their urban sanctuary for women, and they stuck to their guns, despite mounting pressure from Miller and other influential voices in the community. They also resisted Miller's desire to have the women of the YWCA serve the Municipal Auditorium. "That wasn't their idea of why they were there and what they needed to do," says Klure. "They didn't want to be anyone's servants."

The building that now houses the Life Arts Center faced a different kind of pressure: the wrath of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, himself. In 1974, after a brief period of abandonment, the 40,000 square foot building became home to the largest single Scientology Mission in the world. Bent Corydon, President of Life Arts Center Incorporated, was then the "Mission Holder" running the Scientology franchise; after L. Ron Hubbard moved to Riverside County in 1976, the FBI launched a series of raids on the Riverside mission, and Hubbard turned on Corydon, removing him from his official leadership. Corydon continued his own off-shoot Scientology group in the building for a while, despite threats from Hubbard and his lackeys; disillusioned, he went on to co-write the exposé L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman? with L. Ron Hubbard, Jr. Corydon faced a ten year legal battle against the Church of Scientology for ownership of the building, eventually winning in 1992.

Perhaps this history of resistance energized both buildings, setting the stage for art to move in. But while great art is often born of defiance, the transformation of both buildings into arts centers was a communal effort--one formally organized, the other more spontaneous.

Frank Miller created the Spanish Arts Society of California in 1910; this morphed into the Riverside Art Association in the 1930s--a group of artists who gathered to promote and support one another's work, exhibiting at various venues around town. Philosophical differences over abstract art divided the group, and some members splintered off to form the separate Art Guild, but the two groups joined forces once again in the early '50s. The regrouped Association attained non-profit status in 1954, and set about finding its own space where members could exhibit their work and offer classes. The city of Riverside leased the organization a shuttered municipal dog pound on Brockton Avenue for a single dollar per year, and the Riverside Art Center was born. By 1960, the Center was so successful, they had to turn children away from their Friday and Saturday art classes, and they didn't have enough pedestals to accommodate everyone who wanted to study sculpture. The Association started to cast around for a new home; when the YWCA building went on the market, they knew they had found it. The building, a work of art in itself, was no stranger to the arts--art classes and exhibits had been offered on the second floor of the Y, and the Riverside Children's Theater--now the oldest, biggest, non-profit children's theater in Southern California--was established there in 1953. Harnessing the woman-power of the building, a group of twelve women formed the Art Alliance and quickly became a fundraising machine for the young Museum; the Alliance continues to be a force today.

Riverside Art Center | Photo: sugarsharrk/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The transition from Riverside Art Center to Riverside Art Center and Museum in the new space was not without its own controversy. Some of the artists in the organization felt alienated by the shift. "There was a change from serving artists to serving the community," says Klure, "and some artists worried that the museum was more concerned with bringing in famous artists from elsewhere than focusing on the local art scene." She says these feelings opened the way for other local artists' associations to form, including the Life Arts Center.

After Bent Corydon broke all ties with Scientology in the early 1980s, an art supply store moved in to the bottom floor of the building. When artists came to buy their gesso and acrylics, they asked whether the vacant hotel rooms on the top floor were available to rent as art studios. Soon the building was filled with artists and musicians and writers looking for cheap creative space and a sense of community. The empty pool in the basement of the Life Arts Center became a communal studio/gallery, and artists could be found at all hours on the maze of balconies and rooftops near their mattress-strewn studios, strumming guitars and drinking beer and talking shop. Today the pool is now used as storage space, and the professional studios no longer double as flophouses, but artists still congregate and jam in all the common spaces upstairs.

While they have undergone extensive renovations over the years, both the Museum and the Life Arts Center continue to honor the structural integrity and beauty of the buildings that house them, and have both been named Historic Landmarks by the City of Riverside. Julia Morgan designed the YWCA with longevity in mind. "She knew she was designing in earthquake country," says Laura Klure. "She was not simply interested in pretty; she was working toward stable." The sturdy tri-block design she employed--constructed with reinforced, poured-in concrete--is unique amongst Morgan's many California YWCAs. The Museum, whose renovations have included filling in the swimming pool to create gallery space and adding a glass ceiling to the atrium, is committed to preserving the spirit of Morgan's design; the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the same year the building's name officially changed from Riverside Art Center and Museum to Riverside Art Museum.

YMCA Swimming Pool | Photo: Courtesy of Riverside Art Museum.

Parts of the original YMCA building were destroyed by two major fires--the main staircase was rebuilt in the 1950s--so Bent Corydon based his original 1970s Scientology-funded renovations on photos he found in a time capsule behind the 1909 cornerstone. More recently, he received a Corporate Improvement Grant to restore the brick exterior, and Corydon painted the window frames and other architectural elements the original rusty orange used by Arthur Benton, a shade that both lightens and amplifies the brick. Renovations are an ongoing process in the building, which still retains a charmingly ramshackle air.

Today, the basement of the Life Arts Center harkens back to its physical fitness roots, hosting the Body Temple dance and transformational arts studio, the Anam Cara yoga studio, and the City Gym, while the Blood-Orange Infoshop, an artist/activist collective which shares a hallway with Body Temple, keeps the early revolutionary spirit of the Life Arts Center alive. The building has a special buzz on the first Thursday of each month, when the jewelry makers and photographers and painters and other artists open their studio doors to the public.

The Riverside Art Museum has become a vibrant, forward-thinking arts institution while never losing sight of its history. The new exhibitions for Fall reach in both directions: "Painting in Pixels: An Exhibition of Concept Art" explores visionary artists who design virtual worlds for movies and video games, while "Julia Morgan: Foundation and Transition" -- part of the statewide Julia Morgan 2012 Festival -- celebrates the impact of the building's architect across California. The Museum regularly showcases local artists, and, true to the Riverside Art Association's original mission, offers a roster of classes for children and adults.

Riverside resident Nancy Tedder is delighted to be associated with both buildings; she used to work in the sales and rental gallery of the Riverside Art Museum and now owns the Body Temple studio in the Life Arts Building, where she teaches belly dance and hosts a belly dance showcase each month during Arts Walk. "The buildings are both so gorgeous," she says. "I love how the Ys were built as places for people to learn about and empower themselves, and now people get a chance to learn about and empower themselves through art. Art helps reveal more of who we really are."


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Top Image: Life Arts Center | Photo: Wikipedia

About the Author

Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage, and Delta Gir...
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