Iowa native returns home to headline fundraiser

Riley Smith Youth Music Festival benefits Eastern Iowa Arts Academy

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By Meryn Fluker, correspondent

Austin has South by Southwest. Chicago has Lollapalooza. On Friday, Cedar Rapids will have the Riley Smith Youth Music Festival.

The event, which will raise money for the Eastern Iowa Arts Academy, may not have reached high profile proportions yet, but Smith has high hopes.

“We could bring a lot to the community and make it a really big thing,” said the Charles City native, a musician and actor who will close out the festival with a performance from his band The Life of Riley. “I want it to grow and add to it every year.”

The idea to have a youth music festival is one that David Griffin, Eastern Iowa Arts Academy’s executive director, has had for years. It grew legs in late 2015, when one of the academy’s board members connected Smith and Griffin.

“I’d been looking for a charity, something to put my name on, something that meant a lot to me and had a natural tie to my life,” said Smith, who grew up in Marion and graduated from Alburnett High School in 1997.

The daylong concert, which is part of the Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival, is much more family friendly than South by Southwest or Lollapalooza. The bill is full of local acts, including four from Eastern Iowa Arts Academy.

“I’m pretty nervous,” said 14-year-old Noah Trosdahl, whose two bands — Pink Slips and Flash Memory — will perform Friday during the festival. Trosdahl, a bassist, recently moved to the area and found the academy during his search for guitar lessons. Then, he began participating in the organization’s Teen Hang events.

“I’d never performed before coming to Eastern Iowa Arts Academy,” Trosdahl said. “This place has given me the best opportunity in my life.”

Smith, who has appeared on HBO’s “True Blood” and ABC’s “Nashville,” said having access to something like the academy during his youth would have been life changing.

“It’s for anyone that’s interested in the arts and I think it’s such a great way to creatively use your mind,” he said. “It’s going to keep kids out of trouble and you don’t know where (the arts) can lead. For me, (Eastern Iowa Arts Academy) would’ve been such a gift.”

Eastern Iowa Arts Academy provides free and for-cost arts programming for all ages through partnerships with local school districts, area non-profit organizations and businesses.

Annual memberships are available for $80 each; that price covers supplies and access to classes, camps and more. The academy, which has more than 140 members, awarded 35 full or partial membership scholarships this year. Eastern Iowa Arts Academy’s offerings in dance, music, visual art and drama draw an estimated 3,000 participants annually.

“Ultimately, the kids are the most important part of the festival, but it also helps us raise money so we can keep providing these opportunities at the $80 annual cost,” Griffin said. “We need the help of our continued supporters and members of the community.”

The organization’s $300,000 annual budget relies largely on grants — Griffin “writes more grant (applications) than anyone I’ve ever seen,” said Program Director Suzanne Palmer — and gifts.

Griffin, Palmer and Music and Arts Studio Director Heather Wagner also have their eyes on expanding Eastern Iowa Arts Academy’s reach. Griffin said he’d like to increase the amount of time the academy’s space at 1847 E Avenue NE is open, while Wagner said she’d like to one day have an on-site dance studio and offer creative writing instruction and more advanced versions of existing classes.

“We definitely have more demand for programming than we can provide,” Palmer said.

Smith, who spent the week leading up to the festival working with academy students, is in it for good.

“This is something we want to keep going annually,” he said of the festival. “I want to be involved in this as long as it’s around.”

If you go

What: Riley Smith Youth Music Festival

Where: NewBo City Market, 1100 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids

When: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday (Riley Smith’s band, The Life of Riley, will perform at 6 p.m.)

Cost: $8 for the Youth Music Festival, $10 for Riley Smith and The Life of Riley (all-day passes, which get guests into both shows, are $15 each)

Details: Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling (319) 350-1805.

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