2009-12-10 / Editorial

Community commitment takes JAC from dream to reality

By Ken Newman

Many Jamestowners are aware of the Jamestown Arts Center, but some may have questions about its purpose, scope and feasibility in this lessthan terrific economy.

As an islander interested in the arts, I have followed the project, but didn’t know enough about it. It seems like a compelling and ambitious project, but is it do-able?

To find out, I sat down with JAC board members Kate Petrie, a local photographer and president of the non-profit organization; Lizzie Congdon, a local painter and Vivi Valentine, a local event planner.

What’s the project? The mission of the Jamestown Arts Center is to create a home for arts education and exhibition, a rehearsal space, a stage and an interdisciplinary children’s summer arts program. Professional instructors will provide classes for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. Classes will be offered in dance, theater, writing and visual arts.

The idea is to bring all this together in one place, under one roof, and to have it be located as close as possible to the heart of Jamestown.

The organizers were inspired by two notions: The transformative power of the arts and the economic importance of the arts for Jamestown and Rhode Island.

What’s the importance for the economy of Jamestown? This community has long been a magnet for creative types. We have book editors, graphic artists, software designers, boat designers, commercial photographers, architects, jewelry and apparel designers, product design/developers and theatrical set designers. This has influenced others to begin innovative businesses that are often operated partially or wholly from home. We have many young people who take this artistic exposure with them to college and successfully find careers in the arts and related fields.

If we look at the state economy, one of the few areas showing an upswing is the arts and related industries. Businesses that are inspired by or directly related to creative imagination and its intersection with information technology are where we are adding jobs. Examples range from computer modeling for product safety to sustainable aquaculture. Our communities need to be incubators for the creative process in ways that can result in practical applications for adults, as much as for young people.

What is the “transformative” part of the arts? When given the opportunity to actually create in a different medium – using that other side of the brain – a different sense of mastery evolves. It puts the routine way of perceiving in a different light, making it more open to change.

The JAC offers a great opportunity for us to try different things – ceramics, painting, film, video, sculpture, dance, choreography, printmaking, etc. But the central benefit is the collaborative aspect. Painters can paint, dancers practice, filmmakers can work with musicians and sculptors – and there will be space to showcase our work.

By offering these classes in a central place at a reasonable price and at convenient times by accomplished and seasoned practitioners, I think enough Jamestowners would want to participate to meet the JAC’s goal of 25 percent of total capacity in the first operational year.

Three years ago, the JAC began the tricky search for a suitable location. One site was too remote, another was too expensive and a third presented too many problems in terms of retrofitting the building.

Finally, an ideal site became available at 18 Valley St., immediately opposite the playground and the Jamestown Philomenian Library. The building is well suited for multiple teaching studios, performance and rehearsal space. It’s in good shape, it’s flexible and it has parking. The organizers set their sights on soliciting donations to acquire the building and began developing a business plan to explain the financial sustainability of this project past the point of buying the building. After all, who’s going to donate big bucks or even medium bucks to a project that can’t sustain itself whether you have to buy the building or not?

Many generous folks pledged and continue to pledge what is upwards of $300,000 towards the acquisition of the building. The JAC committee hopes to raise the final $100,000 towards this goal by Dec. 21. Additionally, donors have agreed to provide a loan of $300,000 to secure the building.

Once the building is secured, the JAC will be eligible for programming support from foundations, state agencies and organizations that have indicated strong interest. These funders are interested for two main reasons: Their assessment that the JAC project can be successfully used as a template for other communities, and the wide and impressive constellation of individuals here who have given their professional expertise and services as inkind donations to the project. It is this community commitment, combined with the quality of the expertise offered, that ensures support in the next phase. Examples include an entire ceramics studio (kilns included) and all the preliminary architectural designs by the local firm Estes/ Twombly Architects.

While purchasing the building is only the first step in a lengthy process, the project can proceed in stages. I’ve had two opportunities to walk through the building with many different people. I noticed that when people see the space and look at the design, they are sold on the desirability of this project, at this site. I’ve also read the JAC’s business plan, which I think will convince those not yet fully sold on the feasibility aspect.

Visit www.jamestownartcenter. org for more information.

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