Founding COCA director on life, art and what’s next


After 22 years as founding executive director of the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), Stephanie Riven recently announced plans to head to New York City to join Dave Bury & Associates, an arts advisory agency, next June.

We spoke recently in her office at the top floor of the former B’nai Amoona synagogue, a striking structure designed by German-born architect Erich Mendelsohn. Riven, 62, opened by saying she went to nursery school with former Vice President Al Gore Jr., a fellow Tennessean.

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It turns out this Nashville native grew up in a small (3,000) but politically active Jewish community in the turbulent South during the civil-rights era of the fifties and sixties.

Riven and her husband, St. Louis University law professor Roger Goldman, were founding members of Central Reform Congregation. They have two adult sons and live a few blocks from COCA in University City. She plans to commute to New York from their home.

In 1969, Riven earned a B.S. in political science at Washington University, followed by an M.S. in speech and hearing from the Central Institute for the Deaf in 1971. In her tenure at COCA, she has demonstrated a golden touch: She raised about $30 million over the last 10 years. Before going to COCA, she was a speech pathologist in private practice.

What was it like growing up Jewish in Nashville?

The Jewish community was tiny, with three congregations, but it was very socially active. When I was in high school, the sit-ins were going on at Woolworth’s downtown. My rabbi was a leader in the civil rights movement. From the pulpit, he preached a lot about social justice issues. My father, Dr. Sam Riven (a cardiologist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine), was right there with the rabbi.

Wasn’t that risky?

Very. My rabbi carried a gun. His mailbox was blown up. I remember going to religious school, and a swastika was painted on our synagogue. It was a contentious time, scary, and in some ways exciting. We were interested in politics and social change. These were formative years for me. The expectations were high.

Is COCA socially active?

We try to be. I think that’s an aspect of COCA people don’t understand. Growing up in Nashville, I was very aware of race and diversity. What we try to do here is use the arts as a bridge to bring people from all backgrounds together. I think this is the most naturally integrated institution in St. Louis. We have put things in place to make the arts accessible to the broader community.

The arts level the playing field in a way because kids come here and if they are really talented, they can go as far as they want. Social status is irrelevant. It’s all about commitment.

Isn’t this for some a big white institution?

We do a lot to take away the barriers. We have a program where we identify kids who are talented and have a commitment. We have a relationship with schools. We have about six programs within the Urban Arts program. They are designed to remove barriers. We are in city schools, intensively, offering all the things they can get here. We are in 50 schools throughout the community, 10 in the city and 40 in the county.

We have a whole range of services, not just in dance, which we are known for, but theater and music and visual arts. We are a multidisciplinary community arts center. Our focus is to bring people together and be acceptable around the arts.

We have vans. We pick the kids up. We give them scholarships. We give them dancewear. We give them counseling. We facilitate summer study, because summer study in the arts is really important.

Some people doubt the arts are necessary when money is tight. How do you help them see otherwise?

We see the arts as a strategy for teaching, enlivening the classroom and engaging children in learning. The idea is a whole framework for learning and how creativity is nurtured.

How have your ideas changed while at COCA?

I went to a school that encouraged creativity and thrived. I shudder to think how it would have been for me in a more traditional learning environment. I saw what a really creative curriculum – more openness and options – would mean to kids.

We learned we could hire fabulous faculty who could take kids to the professional level. We started to see COCA on a continuum, and along that continuum, there are many points of entry. We were taking students all the way to college. Some could get a scholarship from a Midwestern college. But we asked, “How do you know you can’t go to (The) Juilliard (School)?”

How many students do you reach?

We serve 20,000 students a year, with 7,000 at this site. We are the fifth-largest multidisciplinary arts center in the country. We go to 7,000 students in the county and another 7,000 in the city. We have another 30,000 who come for theater performances, gallery exhibitions.

Who made the first move when it came to your joining David Bury?

We’ve known each other for a long time. I have wanted to take the lessons learned from what we have done here and try to help other community art centers and schools and presenting organizations around the country.

Is it a challenge to change jobs in a new city at this point in your life?

I have plenty of energy. I wanted to do it now so I would have time to do something major in my third career.

How long do you give yourself?

Well, my mother lived to 100, and my father lived to 94. I can run a marathon. I swim about three days a week, a couple of miles. I love to be more physically active.

What’s the trick to raising money?

Telling the story, understanding what people are interested in and trying to address their concerns. Investing in young kids and in an institution like this that can nurture kids is a great investment. This is about helping people have a better life.

Is it best to tap old money or entrepreneurs?

I couldn’t begin to isolate that. The entire community has been very generous. Individuals, companies and foundations — that’s who we go to. They listen to the story. They see the quality. They see the results. They are very intent on measuring results.

Are gifts down because of the recession?

We raised $2.3 million last year. We were down about $250,000. Our membership was down only 7 percent.

What else?

I hope St. Louis recognizes the talent it has here, not only in the students, but in the artist-instructors. They are the people who transform lives. As St. Louis has grown and developed, COCA has been able to hold onto talented people. When I started working here, we’d find people and then they’d leave.