Bristol, RI is a colonial coastal village on the east side of Narragansett Bay that has maintained its historical character and vibrant community life over three and a half centuries of conflict, economic booms and busts, social challenges and modernization threats. It offers a life style to its 22,000 residents that is widely appreciated by modern planners: it’s diverse, walkable, full of natural and manmade amenities, with a face-to-face civic culture. The town has always been a place of makers and craftsmen most notably in the shipbuilding sheds of Nathaniel Herreshoff. Today it supports over a dozen artistic and cultural institutions ranging from historic house museums to nature centers to theaters. One of the town’s valued assets is Roger Williams University with a Community Partnership Center that applies the resources of the academy to help meet town challenges. As one of several small towns in southeast RI, Bristol is connected regionally by a common economy, efforts to protect shared natural resources and collective efforts to help revitalize the state’s sagging economy.
The community planning/development challenge/opportunity we will address
In its downtown historic district, three 19th century schools have been decommissioned. All are on the same block and two sit on one of the oldest colonial commons in New England. One building, with a large auditorium/theatre has become home to a theatre group, language classes and yoga training. Another filled up with artists — painters, photographers, a fabric designer, a sculptor, a poet — making studios out of the old classrooms and building a vibrant creative community within the old school. The third — Walley School — is in need of remediation before it can be used. When a plan for the adaptive reuse for the school — developed with community input by Roger Williams University — stalled for lack of funds, another community planning event was held this fall. This time, the focus moved away from the single school and saw the opportunity to develop three facilities as an integrated resource for the broader arts and cultural life of Bristol. A new organization — Arts in Common — will become a platform for managing the arts buildings and integrating, developing and supporting the many disparate arts and cultural activities in Bristol, and broadening engagement with residents of the town and the region. In formation, this organization is being lead by a cross-section of citizens and professionals volunteering as it gets incorporated as a nonprofit entity.
Guided by Arts in Common, arts and culture will provide Bristol the imagination and energy to repurpose three old buildings and to recreate a 17th century town commons into a 21st century space for creative civic life. Going forward, how the buildings are programmed and overseen will be guided by the needs and interests of arts and culture practitioners and their audiences. Already artists Bristol have appropriated the schools’ affordable spaces; what’s new is that the town will work with the artists, cultural organizations and the university to upgrade and expand the facilities so the arts can stay and thrive. The arts programs at Roger Williams university will lease space in the buildings for classes and exhibitions, stabilizing the financial future of the buildings. The needs and interests of the local cultural institutions will define space for collaborative programming, as well as a home for joint office facilities and shared resources. Broader cultural interests of students and life long learners will guide what learning opportunities are developed in the three facilities. Finally, Arts in Common will network with the creative community, the town, the university, the local business community and residents to ensure the new arts and cultural programming becomes a vital part of the community infrastructure.