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East End Arts at 50: Organization looks to the future by honoring its history

When Wendy Weiss moved back to the East End at the end of 2019 after 15 years, she knew she wanted to get involved with a local organization to reintroduce herself into the community.

After joining East End Arts as a board member in late February 2020, she was so enamored with what the organization was doing that she quit her stable, well-paying job in Boston to join the organization full-time last March. Ms. Weiss is now the nonprofit’s creative director.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a statistic being part of the ‘great resignation,’ ” Ms. Weiss said. “I had just started falling in love with the team here and with everything that East End Arts stood for.” 

East End Arts will celebrate its 50th anniversary Aug. 18 with a summer soirée at its campus on Main Street in Riverhead. There will be a selection of live entertainment, a curated art sale, East End wines and beers, a silent auction and more.

The regional multi-arts center has been serving the five East End towns since 1972. According to its website, the organization “strives to cultivate and nurture a vibrant arts community on the East End of Long Island” through its numerous programs and exhibitions.

Annually, East End Arts presents  22 gallery exhibits to showcase local talent and offers over 150 educational art, music and theatre programs, as well as private music instruction, professional development and resources for both emerging and established artists, according to the website. 

Some of EEA’s most prominent programs are the Teeny Awards, annual “Detour” exhibition, which features the work of over 16 local artists and the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. portrait project, to mention a few. The large portrait mosaic made by local high school art students known as the Dr. Martin Luther King project, after being exhibited at the corresponding participating high schools, is displayed in a public gallery then auctioned off to support EEA’s scholarship fund for art and music students in need.

The organization’s education director, Katherine Dwyer Ruscick, said she wants to spread awareness about the EEA scholarship fund so more kids in the community can take advantage of it.

“I’d love to empty the scholarships and then fill them back up,” she said. “It’s silly to hold this money. I would rather give it up and have these kids take advantage of [our] after school [programs], our Saturday programs, some of our camps, we have college prep art intensives for portfolio building … we have so much to offer.”

EEA has programs for people of all ages and interests in the arts. For the full list of their programing and courses and to sign up, visit eastendarts.org.

When Diane Burke, EEA’s executive director, joined the organization three years ago, she saw all the great programing that was being offered but felt that all the programs were siloed, and it was her dream to join them together under the umbrella of EEA.

“When I came here, I could feel that,” Ms. Burke said. “I could feel the programs in their own buckets and I, sitting in this chair, I was trying to put my arms around all of them and bring them in, but it was really about putting the right team together that was open to breaking down those walls and working together and that’s I think how the dream came true,” she said.

Ms. Burke recalled that when she started working at EEA it was in financial trouble and “nearly broken” but now the organization is stable. She credits Ms. Weiss and the rest of the team there for being able to look into the future.

“Looking backwards to where we are now … we’ve got our sparkle back,” Ms. Burke said.