Lori McKinney-Blankenship and Robert Blankenship provide a place of refuge for Princeton creatives at The RiffRaff Arts Collective.
Princeton-born Lori McKinney-Blankenship met Summers County native Robert Blankenship at an open mic in Hinton in 2003. What connected them was their joint recognition of the importance of creative spaces for people in the community. So in 2004, they created Culturefest, a weekend-long multicultural arts and music festival in Mercer County.
“There was something so special about bringing together people from different backgrounds through music and the arts,” McKinney-Blankenship says. “We recognized we wanted to do that not only at Culturefest, but year round.”
They were holding events in coffee shops and city parks when they realized they wanted a space of their own. They, along with other artists, dreamed up The RiffRaff Arts Collective in 2006 and bought a 10,000-square-foot multi-story building on Mercer Street in Princeton.
The headquarters of The RiffRaff houses a 40-artist gallery. Below that, artists get creative—and messy—working on projects like T-shirt printing. Above the gallery are office spaces and six artist studios, and that’s where the Blankenships live—among it all. The top floor, a ballroom with pressed tin ceilings plus a stage and recording studio, is referred to as “The Room Upstairs.” McKinney-Blankenship calls it The RiffRaff’s creative epicenter because all sorts of gatherings have taken place there over 16 years, from open mics to meetings and yoga classes. She also calls it a place of “mudita,” the Sanskrit word meaning vicarious joy. Next door is Stages Music School, which serves more than 200 students.
Blankenship is the yin to McKinney-Blankenship’s yang. He provides technical and logistical support for her lofty visions to hold the whole operation together. “Nothing Robert does is something I’m capable of,” she says. “He builds and creates things in this fascinating way.”
Their partnership functions as a symbiotic organism, each element just as important as any other.
What is the concept behind the name “The RiffRaff Arts Collective”?
Lori McKinney: If you look up “riffraff” in Merriam-Webster, it says “considered by some to be worthless and low.” If you don’t look beyond what’s on the surface, you might miss out on something extraordinary. Down here on Mercer Street, it was pretty much abandoned, but we were an economic development engine waiting to be tapped.
What do you bring to the Princeton area?
LM: When I met Robert, I realized I was brought to this earth to do something with my creative gifts. We’re creating this space so that people can have joyous experiences, with the hope that they’ll take that and go out into the world and create more of it.
Robert Blankenship: Growing up, I didn’t have outlets to express my creativity, so that’s a big driving force for me—providing a place where young creatives can come and be themselves.
LM: A lot of people say there’s nothing around here, but what there is is opportunity. If you’re from a place, consider returning there, because you can make a big difference.
What kind of change do you hope to inspire?
LM: I want to see a more connected and joyous society where people are more empowered to express themselves freely and in creative ways. Even if it’s just being able to bring one other person joy through allowing them to experience your creativity, that inspires them to experience their own.
RB: With the Create Your State Tour, we’ve worked with 25 towns throughout the state and been able to guide them through the rough patches that come along with community development.
LM: We have plans for telling stories of the communities and sharing knowledge so we can help each other grow.