The Portsmouth Arts and Culture Committee

The Vision

Portsmouth has an opportunity:

  • to improve the quality of life for residents of all ages;
  • to develop a town resource that will build a “sense of community” for residents;
  • to strengthen arts and culture organizations that already exist in the area;
  • to promote all varieties of music, photography, gallery exhibitions, and involvement in the arts of all kinds;
  • to help create arts programs for groups with a common interest — creative writing, film and video, textiles — where programs do not currently exist;
  • to use an existing town facility for the benefit of all Portsmouth residents.

The Portsmouth Center for the Arts would offer the community:

  • A flexible performance and gathering space capable of seating more than 200;
  • gallery space for a variety of year-round exhibitions;
  • facilities for visual and performing arts education, from children through seniors;
  • regular communications about visual and performing opportunities in the area;
  • summer and vacation arts programs for school-age children;
  • weekend or evening workshops for adults;
  • a place to gather, meet new friends, and explore new interests;
  • a year-round program of concerts, exhibitions, and varied arts experiences;
  • arts programs for families.

The Portsmouth Center for the Arts would:

  • be located in the town-owned Coggeshall School on East Main Road;
  • be governed by an independent local board;
  • be managed by professional staff with an extensive group of volunteers;
  • be funded through grants, memberships, user fees, tickets, and retail sales;
  • begin modestly and build its programs and facilities in response to the interests of its users.

The Need

In a town-wide survey conducted in January 2010, Portsmouth residents declared their need for a permanent community arts center:

  • More than half (56%) responded that residents’ cultural needs were not adequately met by existing organizations on Aquidneck Island and that an arts center was both needed and desired;
  • More than three quarters (77%) agreed that a community center for the arts would enhance the Town’s quality of life;
  • Eight in ten (83%) agreed that a center for the arts would provide a place to gather in community;
  • Eight in ten (81%) agreed that a center for the arts would improve access to local artists and performers;
  • A majority (58%) felt that a center for the arts would help attract residents and businesses;
  • A majority (57%) agreed that a center for the arts would contribute to the Town’s economy.

While a small minority said that existing facilities satisfied their arts-related interests, the most serious objection to creating a multifaceted community arts center was the cost of building one in difficult economic times with other pressing Town priorities. Many urged private funding (as opposed to a bond issue) as the solution.

Portsmouth has a few community-based arts organizations that have potential to grow but are limited by space or lack of public awareness. These include:

  • The Portsmouth Arts Guild, now in its eighth year, operates a 1,200-square-foot gallery in the parish hall of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. It has no space for office, storage, or comprehensive arts education programs.
  • Common Fence Music, with its home in the community hall at Common Fence Point, provides a varied program of musical entertainment on Saturday evenings during the fall, winter and spring. It would benefit from a larger venue to serve larger audiences for higher profile performers and creative area events.
  • Portsmouth Community Theater presents periodic theatrical productions in the gymnasium/auditorium of the Christian Academy at the former Coggeshall School on East Main Road. As with the others, PCT would benefit from the enhanced publicity and energy gained from the synergy of a combined arts center.

A community arts center would provide additional program space, allow the groups to reach more interested residents of Portsmouth and surrounding communities, increase their program offerings, and develop collaborations and synergy with other arts groups. It would also encourage and assist in the development of arts groups for which there is community interest but little organized support.

The Site

The Portsmouth Arts and Culture Committee, appointed by the Town Council to consider development of a community arts center, visited a number of town-owned sites. Of those sites, only the former Coggeshall School offered conditions that would allow plans for a community arts center to move forward:

  • Existing structure. The committee’s survey of Portsmouth households clearly showed that a community arts center would be impossible without an existing building. There is no apparent method to finance new construction or even extensive renovation in the near term.
  • Configuration. The site offers a gymnasium that has been used for theatrical and musical performances; hallways that would support gallery shows and other exhibitions; six classrooms for arts education or limited studio purposes; office space. The space — approximately 12,000 square feet — is ready for use with minimal renovation. The southern end of the building is not up to code and could not be used for programming in its current condition.
  • Access. The usable portion of the building – its northern end – has no stairways or other impediments. The site is served by RIPTA bus lines and has adequate parking areas. It is already a familiar site to many Portsmouth residents (there are Little League fields on site) and situated on one of the town’s main north-south arteries.
  • Public ownership. The site and building are owned by the Town of Portsmouth. Originally built as a public school, the site has been leased to private schools in recent years, including the Pennfield School, which moved into a new campus nearby for the 2001-02 school year, and the Aquidneck Island Christian Academy, a parochial school which currently serves approximately 30 families.
  • Expandable. Depending on the evolution of the art center’s program, the site could accommodate growth in future years, including possible replacement of the southern wing of the building.

The Plan

Developing a permanent community arts center requires a thoughtful, detailed plan. The Portsmouth Arts and Culture Committee has developed a plan that will address the following elements:

  • Building a coalition of arts groups and supporters;
  • Developing proposed arts and culture programs;
  • Preparing an initial operating budget, with details on funding sources;
  • Developing a proposed timeline of actions and tasks.

The Coalition

Some natural alliances already exist among the three arts groups already operating in Portsmouth, and these are well represented on the Portsmouth Arts and Culture Committee. These three groups already are friends and allies. A formal alliance among them is a critical starting point that would bring together visual fine arts, musical performances and theater under one banner.

That alone is not enough. The Committee intends to broaden its base of support for a community arts center by reaching out to all groups and individuals in Portsmouth who share an interest in developing a vibrant arts center to serve the entire town.

The Arts and Culture Programs

With the basic coalition formed, the committee will develop more detailed proposals for arts and education programming — a better description of what Portsmouth residents could expect from the center. These could range from outdoor summer concerts to summer art camps for children to lecture and discussion programs to art shows and festivals to workshops on photography, painting, creative writing, theater and other interests as well as escorted study-group tours of exhibitions or performances as far away as Boston.

The Operating Budget

Preparing an operating budget for a proposed center is difficult, but the Committee was able to draw on the experience of existing arts groups in Portsmouth and nearby communities and extrapolate from their budgets.

The Timetable

The Committee is considering a two- to three-year timetable to develop the required management structure and support network and coalitions, as well as to conduct initial fundraising and to establish programs for a community arts center at the proposed site. Details on various aspects of the timetable will be prepared as the support network develops and tasks and responsibilities are assigned.

The Committee anticipates a plan for a center that will mature and grow slowly and incrementally, adding programs and services in response to expressed community interests and needs.


Creating a community arts center in Portsmouth is an exciting, if somewhat daunting, prospect. It requires close collaboration and work by large numbers of committed people and organizations who believe in the idea and its benefits. This prospectus is offered to enlist your support for this idea to give the arts and arts education a major boost in Portsmouth for the town and region.

At the heart of the proposal is a plan to use existing Town property to benefit the greatest number of Portsmouth residents and visitors. It begins with the simple notion of creating a partnership of existing arts organizations in town and building from there. Collaboration among arts organizations is appealing to foundations and granting agencies as an effective and efficient use of their funding dollars.

Equally important, a community arts center that brings expanded arts and culture opportunities together under one roof will be beneficial not just to the arts organizations themselves, but according to the 2010 survey, a major benefit to Portsmouth residents as well.

Where the arts audience, arts organization membership, and arts organizations themselves are currently segmented and scattered throughout town, they would gain through regular, coordinated communications, cross-pollination, potential for coordinated grant applications, higher profiles, better visibility, common meeting space, even cooperative programming and collaborative projects.

At the Portsmouth Town Council meeting of November 28, 2011, the Portsmouth Arts and Culture Committee submitted its final report to the Council. The 43-page document was well received by the Council, which unanimously voted to conduct a workshop so that a detailed review of the report could be undertaken in a public forum. The workshop will be scheduled in early 2012.

The committee’s final report and other documents are available at the website of the Portsmouth Arts Guild: