Preceded by a shock of curly blond hair, Mariann Almonte steps out of her office with a big hello and an even bigger cup of coffee. The Executive Director of Courthouse Center for the Arts in Kingston, she’s running on caffeine and pure adrenalin. Just the night before, legendary country artist Hal Ketchum performed a rare acoustic show to a sold out crowd. Another musical act would swing in the following day. In less than a week’s time, a new gallery exhibit would be installed. Summer camps ended and classes were gearing back up. Even with only two full-time employees, the place hums with activity.
Almonte was introduced to the Courthouse Center for the Arts by a friend. She was invited immediately to join their board of directors. In 2016, after a year on the board, she took the reigns of Executive Director, refocusing the Courthouse’s direction into creating inclusive arts learning opportunities for kids, giving the South County’s children access to free theater and music classes.
A parent described the experience of her shy and reserved middle school aged son as “transformative,” saying that his increased confidence carried over in all areas of his life. “He’s more engaged and outspoken,” she says. “The program has done so much for him.”
Almonte cites the 2007 study released by the Dana Foundation concluding that kids who participated in the arts were cognitively and developmentally ahead of their peers.
“The arts programs are the first to get cut in schools,” Almonte says. “Or there’s one theater class for a school of 1,300. That serves maybe 20 or 30 kids. What about the ones who are left out? We can fill that void.”
Almonte’s early childhood was spent in Cranston, part of a tight-knit family. They owned an eight-family home that housed grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was a family member’s struggle with mental illness that prompted an interest in community service. She began volunteering at the age of 13 with an unwavering commitment towards mental health and child advocacy.
As an arts hub, the Courthouse is building its name on the music touring circuit. A repurposed courthouse built in 1893, the performance space is located in the largest courtroom on the second floor. Built before the advent of artificial amplification, the intimate space has spectacular acoustics, making the venue an appealing stop for national acts traveling between large cities like Boston and New York.
Before each show, Almonte gets on stage and pitches for the non-profit organization. She cajoles the audience to contribute, “even if it’s just swishing a brush in the toilet bowl after they use the bathroom.”
Almonte’s kinetic energy — and her spirit — is infectious. “A lot of the musical acts that come through here are so touched by what we are doing that they lower their performance fees. They love our mission and they want to support it. How cool is that?”
Upkeep on the 120-year-old building is a challenge. A grant from the Champlin Foundation allowed the Center to repair the old slate roof and replace some leaky windows. But there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“Our neighbors are amazing. The guy across the street is a landscaper and he just pops over and cuts our grass. Another neighbor is a plumber. He’s here weekly unclogging something from the ancient pipes. Our board president pulls beer behind the bar for patrons during shows.” She laughs. “There is no way we could do this without the community behind us.”
Three rooms on the first floor house gallery exhibits, which rotate monthly. They hold openings every first Thursday of the month featuring work by local artists, and offering finger food with a cash bar. Groups can rent out the arts center for parties and events — Almonte raves about a Halloween wedding they put on last year — which helps fund their free classes. She also offers free meeting space for non-profits like the National Alliance on Mental Illness and various veterans organizations.
Almonte’s vision includes renovating a home on the property to house the visiting artists, which will cut down on hotel costs. She is licensing a percussion program developed by a professor at Brown University to add to the kids’ classes. A woodworking program to teach the art of restoration and business management is in its gestation stage.
“No child should be denied access to the arts,” Almonte says. “We want to take away that financial barrier. We want to give them a safe space to be themselves, be social, and have fun. Our doors are always open. All are welcome.”