Ridgefield Pride Arts Center offers creators ‘an oasis’

Dee Dee Colabella might be a superhero.

Her power? Turning visions into reality — fast.

That’s the story behind how the Ridgefield Pride Arts Center came into existence.

“I had this vision of this place that would help people get ready for arts school but also help them find a career in the arts,” said Colabella, who’s lived in Ridgefield since 2004. “Continuing education, private and semi-private work spaces, studio space to display and hang your work in, and a gallery storefront to sell it — I thought why not tie it all into one space?”

Colabella will offer all of that and more to both to her resident artists and RPAC members. The business opened at 424R Main Street above 850 Degrees Wood Fired Restaurant on July 13, and she has already filled four of the six private resident artist spaces as well as eight of the 15 semi-private paces available.

“Everything has just clicked into place,” she said. “It’s cosmic. ... This is exactly what I envisioned.”

Next up is the opening of Ridgefield Pride Art Gallery in the fall at 410 Main Street — the former William Raveis storefront.

“We believe that an arts education should be about giving artists an opportunity to sell their work,” Colabella said. “The right education teaches them how to make this a career, not just fine tune skills. We researched ways to get into galleries and we found it’s very difficult. It’s all about timing. That’s why we wanted to create a gallery to showcase artists’ work. It’s a huge benefit to have a gallery to show your work in, and that’s what they get with us.”

Not done yet

It’s hard to imagine Colabella was planning to open RPAC while simultaneously graduating from Western Connecticut State University with a master’s in fine arts this spring but that’s just how things worked out for her and her business partner Greg Mursko.

“I got my MFA in the mail and it was this magical moment but then I just laid it down on my kitchen counter and realized it was just a paper,” said Mursko, who graduated with Colabella from West Conn this spring. “And that’s because there’s a lot more to an arts education after your done in the classroom.”

Mursko, who like Colabella has a background in graphic design, said he’s looking forward to giving others an education in the fine arts.

“A lot of people come out of arts school and they don’t know how to get a job in the industry or don’t know how to sell their work,” he said.

Colabella is using the market inefficiency to her advantage.

“A lot of art programs around here are not designed to teach the business side, which is an essential piece to any arts education,” she said. “These programs are all about focusing on skills. What we have is a space that offers both development and business.”

Wide range

Mursko, who lives in Watertown, is excited to work with a large swath of creative people.

“I love being around people who love art,” he said. “And that’s all that we have here — it’s like a little oasis. ...

“The most gratifying part of all of this is being able to do everything from helping a student prepare his or her portfolio for art school to offering a space that enables creators to establish their brand and become their own businesses,” he added. “Some of the people who come in can’t believe we’re going to have a physical gallery storefront and a digital gallery storefront where they can sell prints online and make additional money. I keep hearing, ‘you’re really going to have both?’ Yes, we are.”

Right person, right time

Bewilderment is a familiar refrain — both from prospective RPAC members and its ownership team.

And that’s because the physical manifestation of Colabella’s dreams happened so rapidly.

“I had the idea for coming into the MFA program but it wasn’t until last September — September 2018 —where we really began talks about what the space would really have to look like for it to be school, a place to work, and a gallery,” she said.

She said the vacancy above 850 on Main Street became available in January this year, and she heard about it from First Selectman Rudy Marconi when attending a meeting for Ms. President US.

“This has been so quick,” she said. “Yes, I’ve been talking about it dating back a few years — 2016 or 2017, but the first time we really put anything on paper was September 2018.”

“It really was just an idea we had talked about,” Mursko added. “I didn’t think it was actually going to happen.”

Like with any new venture, the location was everything.

“Getting the space here — and the gallery space on Main Street — was very key,” Colabella said. “That’s when I began to see it all come together.”

One offhand comment to a friend and a chance encounter with the town’s top official was all Colabella needed to work her magic.

“It was quite serendipitous,” she recalled. “I had mentioned to my friend Liz [Fleuette, the founder of Ms. President US] about trying to find a space. All I said was that I was trying in downtown Ridgefield. Next thing I know, Rudy is telling me Urstadt Biddle has this vacant property off Main Street above 850. I was talking to the right person at the right time in the right place ... The whole thing has been that way.”

Both Colabella and Mursko agreed to seize the opportunity presented to them.

“It started going quicker than either of us originally thought,” he said. “It really kicked into turbo gear in the second semester.”

Art on the walls

The two graphic designers worked nonstop from the first week of April through the first week of July to renovate the space in time for Ridgefield Pride Art Center’s grand opening on July 13.

“Every nut and bolt in this place has been tightened by one of these two,” said Brooke Heinen, RPAC’s CFO.

“It’s incredible to see art on the walls finally,” added Colabella. “It’s the greatest feeling of all.”

But has RPAC arrived too late to Ridgefield’s booming art scene?

Colabella thinks the timing couldn’t be more ideal — and it’s hard to blame her considering her recent streak of good fortune getting the business together.

“I would actually love to see more galleries open up in town,” she said. “It’ll only benefit our artists. Because when new galleries open up, it brings in the collectors, the brokers and the curators from all over. It’s better exposure for everyone. We welcome any sort of competition because that means people are really beginning to come to Ridgefield to look at art and to buy art and to take our art community more seriously. I think it’s the next evolution of our town and its art scene, honestly.”

She believes RPAC could become a leader in bringing buyers to town.

“We have the Aldrich but I don’t think we’re building off it enough,” she said. “ ... We have a huge art community here but a lot of it goes outward — to New York City and elsewhere. What we need is to bring it back in.”

Heinen is confident that Colabella can make it happen.

“She had a vision and that vision came to life,” Heinen said. “Not a lot of people can say that.”

For more information about the private and semi-private rooms available at RPAC, call 203-273-7455, or via email, info@ridgefieldprideartcenter.com. Ridgefield Pride Art Center is located at 424R Main Street.