City offices plan could force arts center out of Apponaug

Warwick Beacon ·

After 42 years of calling the former Kentish Guards armory in Apponaug home, the Warwick Museum and now the Warwick Center of the Arts may be forced to find new digs.

Last Wednesday, as he joined Rocky Point aficionado Sean McCarthy to highlight the House of Horrors car McCarthy restored and is on display in City Hall, Mayor Joseph Solomon disclosed his proposal to use the armory for municipal offices. He pointed out that use of the armory would be a savings to taxpayers over other possible venues as the administration addresses city employees displaced by the closure of the City Hall Annex more than a year ago.

Offices housed in the annex were relocated to the former Greene School on Draper Avenue. Since assuming the job of mayor last May and continuing after his election in November, Solomon has worked to reopen the Buttonwood Community Center that former Mayor Scott Avedisian closed and planned to sell because of the cost of roof repairs and required upgrades. When renovations are completed sometime in April, Solomon plans to relocate most of the municipal offices to Buttonwoods while keeping a room available for use by senior clubs and the public.

The Buttonwoods offices would be much closer to City Hall and allow for the administration to plan for a new annex. Solomon has called the old annex “toast” and feels it should be demolished. But while few would argue the building should come down, the city and the Interlocal Trust that insures the property are divided over the claim for the damages caused by a second floor burst pipe that extensively flooded the Assessor’s office and cause moisture damage throughout the building.

According to Taylor Terreri, executive director of the Warwick Arts Center, representatives from the City Planning Department met with her about three weeks ago to announce that Solomon was considering use of the armory as offices for the personnel department and information technology. She said it was suggested the center could be relocated to the former Wickes School, where they would have access to an auditorium for performances as well as office, gallery and classroom space. She said there was discussion about a tour of Wickes, but that hasn’t happened yet.

As nothing has been finalized, Terreri has moved ahead with the center’s schedule of exhibitions, including that of McCarthy’s extensive Rocky Point collection slated to open May 22 and run through June 27.

“We haven’t stopped planning anything,” she said.

But the possibility that the city could end the center’s $1 a year lease of the armory could be problematic.

This year the center was awarded a $145,000 Champlin Foundation grant to redesign the front entrance to the building with the replacement of steep stone steps with a landing with an angled side staircase. Part of the work would include further development of the small public area, named after the late Harvey Zimmerman, who did so much for the center. The site is between the armory and the Apponaug Library.

The Champlin grant raises additional questions, as the center has been the beneficiary of other grants for heating and air conditioning and to renovate the gallery space. Would the center be required to refund a portion or all of those grants if it no longer is using the space?

Center board president Stephany Hessler said Sunday that since 2001, and including the most recent Champlin grant, $375,000 from grants will have been invested in the armory. She said that Champlin requires the center to have a minimum of a five-year lease in order to use the $145,000. The funds are to be expended within the next two years.

Hessler said the center has been in limbo since last May when it sought to renew its lease agreement with the city. The center has been dealing with the planning department, and she said she has not talked with Solomon.

She said the center was told last spring that, because of the change in administrations, Solomon wanted to hold off on finalizing a lease. It was the decision of the board to be “very quiet” about the possibility of a move, although that was mentioned to Randall Rosenbalm, director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, who Hessler said sent Solomon a letter in support of renewing the armory lease.

Hessler said the center has a full year of exhibits, events and rentals planned that includes the hiring for 30 to 40 artists to conduct classes and what has become a signature exhibit – the community exhibit that draws in people from across the state and beyond. Last year, the center featured Oakland Beach; this year it is Rocky Point. In the last two years, Hessler said the center has seen 10,000 cross its threshold.

“The last thing we want to do is cancel things. That will hurt our brand and our credibility,” she said.

The next major event is the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts fellowship exhibition opening on Feb. 28. Hessler said Solomon has been invited to attend and to welcome guests at the opening of the show.

In addition to its ongoing calendar, Hessler feels the center is playing a critical role in revitalizing Apponaug Village by bringing in people who will frequent local businesses and creating events that put the spotlight on the village, making it attractive to future businesses.

“We really are a player in the community, we want to be a part of that growth,” she said.

Hessler pointed out that the rebranding of the Warwick Museum to the Warwick Center for the Arts was aimed at encompassing all the arts.

“Arts is not just things hanging on the wall, it’s culture,” she said. It is also, she notes, not limited to “artists,” it’s also about providing affordable opportunities for people to discover the arts – whether as an observer or becoming engaged through a class.

“There are neat ways to engage the community. We want to be here,” she said.

Started as the Warwick Museum in 1974 in space at the Pontiac Mills and moved to the armory in 1977, the center not only has a schedule of fine art exhibits but also hosts musical and small stage productions and art classes. It currently has 150 members. Membership is $35 for individuals and $50 for families.

The center gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and every fourth Thursday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

According to its mission statement, “The Warwick Center for the Arts’ core commitment is to serve as a center dedicated to uniting the community through the arts. We connect all ages and abilities with a variety of arts and activities through exhibits, educational programs, and cultural experiences. Emerging and established artists will find a unique and inviting space in which to share their creative vision with the community.”

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