Providence might be well known for its world-class art scene, and rightfully so, but you don’t have to venture up to the city to find creative masterpieces. The Jamestown Arts Center has set out to make the world of art accessible to the state’s smaller, rural communities.
In 2007, eight Jamestown artists and art lovers noticed a need on the island for a creative hub: a place for individuals to gather, practice their art form of choice and experience the arts as a community. In the following years, the JAC team reached out to the local community for both expertise and support and were greeted with enthusiasm. They launched a campaign to purchase a former boat repair shop to house the center and hired executive director Lisa Utman Randall as the center’s first staff member. After extensive renovations, the JAC opened its doors in July of 2011, and has thrived ever since.
“There are so many ways different people can have an entrée into the arts if they have a community center that’s embedded into the community and run and populated by people in the town,” says Lisa. “We really try to have art experiences that meet people at whatever level they are.”
The arts center may appear unassuming from the outside, but it is a vibrant home to multiple artistic disciplines. The refurbished space has rooms dedicated to classes in pottery, painting, drawing, printmaking and computer graphics. A gallery space presents rotating exhibits featuring both local and internationally known artists like Barbara Kruger and Lesley Dill. And at its heart is a spacious multi-purpose room that hosts a little bit of everything, including theatre performances, film screenings, concerts and book launches.
Accommodating so many different disciplines under one roof has proved to be more of an asset than a challenge, according to Lisa. It keeps the center dynamic, lively and unique. The eclectic programming can be a little chaotic, but the musical chairs of rotating events is made possible by volunteers always willing to lend a hand.
“A big part of our mission is the word ‘extraordinary,’” says Lisa. “We want to bring extraordinary, world-class visual and performing arts here to this small island.”
Big names have graced the JAC’s stage, including Broadway’s Stephen Wallem and Providence-born actor Tony Estrella who appeared in The Departed and Manchester by the Sea. And in late September, the JAC will be hosting the Manhattan Short Film Festival, a global event
for film lovers.
The expansion of the center’s reputation has come with its own set of challenges. The JAC has to maintain a balance of professionalism and community feel, offering the quality of art sophisticated art consumers expect, while accommodating artistic newcomers. It is a fine line to walk for a small-town arts center with a big-city vision, but the community’s reception has been overwhelmingly positive.
“A lot of people walk in the door and say ‘our arts center’ and ‘we’re doing great things here’,” says Lisa. “That sense of ownership is really heartwarming and necessary for us to continue succeeding.” The community’s unwavering presence as students, donors, fundraisers, volunteers and audience members has had an immense impact on the JAC’s success.
The relationship between the JAC and Jamestown is reciprocal, and as the community engages with the arts center, so does the JAC engage with local groups and organizations. “We do a lot in terms of making this space available for some of the incredibly talented people that are in our community,” says Lisa. “And we work really hard to make this place really for everybody.”
This means the JAC has screened senior class projects, hosted field trips, partnered with local universities, provided enrichment programming to public schools, invited the senior center to view formal dress rehearsals and worked with the Bridges organization for adults with developmental disabilities. They host members’ shows, holiday arts markets and open studios and rent out the multi-purpose room for locals to get as much access to the JAC’s facilities as possible.
“We’ve really seen that this has become an incredible gathering space for conversations about the arts,” says Lisa. “There isn’t another facility like this kind around.”
Despite only being open for six years, the JAC has become a fixture in Jamestown. The team hopes to expand the island’s artistic enthusiasm to other areas of Rhode Island and encourage residents all over the state to take advantage of this access to quality art experiences. With that vision comes some strategic planning, like partnering with more Jamestown- and Newport-based organizations to draw new visitors to the center. They also hope to fund an exhibit of outdoor sculpture to engage more families from all over the island.
“That’s a big, big project,” Lisa says. “But that’s something we would love to do because the goal is to continue to expand the accessibility to the arts.”
Additional plans for the center include refinishing the exterior with curbing and trees and adding solar panels to the roof. For now, the JAC looks forward to offering classes for the fall as well as some special exhibits and events in September. These include Natasha Harrison and Maggie Nowinski’s exhibit in Crescita, which will feature a range of media such as glass, pen and ink drawings, collage and transparent light box dioramas.
“It’s an exciting place,” says Lisa. “And I think a lot of people feel really proud that they have an organization like this in their town.”
Megan Schmit, SO Rhode Island
Friday, September 1, 2017