Arts on the Island

The Jamestown Arts Center makes its big debut

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Over the course of five days at the end of September, you could have attended the opening of a marine photography exhibit that featured a slide show presented by renowned Newport maritime photographer Onne van der Wal, viewed an international short film festival or marveled at a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Was all of this taking place at a prestigious New York City museum or theater? No, it was taking place right here in southern Rhode Island at the recently opened Jamestown Arts Center.

The conversation about opening an arts center in Jamestown began on a beach, as many things do in what is, after all, an island community. Four years ago, co-founders Kate Petrie and Elizabeth Congdon were discussing the lack of local art opportunities for their children. “When we moved to Jamestown I thought it was going to be easy to find art classes for the kids,” Petrie says. “It wasn’t really. I used to try to get art in school programs going and it was always tricky. There were very few places that you could just come together and make something.”

On that day the friends decided that having an arts center in Jamestown was a great idea, and they agreed to try to make it happen. They put together a board of directors, and set out to make their dream a reality. “What we were really trying to find was a home. A location where artists, and there are so many artists in Jamestown, could come together,” Petrie says.

In the interim, the newly formed Jamestown Arts Center, still without a permanent home, rented the Jamestown Gallery storefront space downtown. It was there that the annual Collaboration Show began, in which artists of all ages and disciplines are invited to submit work in a 12” x 12” square format. The show is held each April and has since become something of a community tradition.

Meanwhile, the search for a permanent space continued. Several buildings were considered, including Jamestown’s old town hall, but in that instance issues with Native American burial grounds could not be resolved. Finally, a new look at local real estate listings revealed that a former boat repair garage was on the market. “We walked in here and it was an epiphany,” Petrie says. “Every single space made sense. We couldn’t give up. It was so perfect, so right.”

It took two years to develop a prospect list and meet with people who might be interested in contributing money to the purchase of the new building. “It was basically going to everybody asking for money,” Petrie recalls.

“People would go running when they saw us with our blue folders,” Petrie admits, laughing. “We would sit down with people and explain the project. Even though we had a few people who didn’t get it, most of those people eventually came around. And it was fun bringing them around.”

One interesting aspect of the early development process was that the board of directors was entirely female. According to Petrie, it wasn’t intentional.

“There have always been men involved on different levels – the building committee and that type of thing – but the people who came forward with the time and energy, the desire and the passion to actually be on the board and put a lot of time into it happened to be women,” says Lisa Randall, Executive Director of the Arts Center. There are currently three male board members.

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