Since launching the “Arts for All!” campaign in mid-October, the Warwick Museum of Art (WMOA) has been able to raise half of the $28,000 needed to replace the building’s wheelchair lift.
Since kicking off the campaign with a wine tasting fundraiser on Oct. 18, $14,000 has been raised to replace the Kentish Guards Armory’s (where the WMOA is housed) wheelchair lift, which was vandalized and deemed un-repairable early in 2013. Ten thousand came from the city through a community block grant, and another $2,000 was raised through a challenge grant from an anonymous donor at the wine tasting event.
The remaining $2,000 came from donations from Ann Capaldi at the Cowesset Branch of Coastway Bank, Kathy Wiggins from the giving arm of DiSanto, Priest and Company and a collection box inside the museum.
One aspect of the mission of WMOA is to expose arts to the community, and because of the vandalized wheelchair lift, Deb Mercer, president of WMOA’s Board of Directors, says a portion of the community is not permitted access to the building, its cultural exhibits and special programs.
“Arts should be open and free to all economic levels and different abilities,” explained Mercer. She added that the museum’s art exhibits and opening receptions are free for all members of the public, and they offer art classes and special programs for all ages.
“We are in the business of getting people to come here when they have a zillion other things on their plate,” said Mercer.
She hopes to have the wheelchair lift replaced within the next six months so all members of the community will once again have access to the museum and its many events.
“The second largest city should have a cultural center that is accessible to everyone,” said Mercer. “We are one of only 23 armories in the state. Everyone should have the opportunity to come in and look around.”
Mercer said the annual operating budget of the museum is $50,000; that budget is funded through programming such as art classes, which charge a fee, fundraising, a small annual grant from the city and legislative grants. Also, 40 percent of any artwork sold through exhibits goes to the museum.
Sadly, Mercer explained that there is no way they could cover the cost of the lift using their budget.
“The wheelchair lift is outside of our operating expenses,” said Mercer.
Mercer and her team researched grants when the lift was first damaged to see if one would cover the replacement, but there are none.
“Our need doesn’t really fit,” said Mercer, explaining that grants do not usually cover repairs to the physical structure of a building. “It’s not arts and it’s not food, shelter, medical supplies. We’re falling through the cracks; we cannot rely on grants.”
So the “Arts For All!” campaign was born, in the hopes of repairing the lift and once again making the programs accessible for all.
Simone Spruce-Torres, the museum’s new program director and professional artist, hopes to engage the community more in the space, and fixing the lift will only help in that mission.
Since taking on the position a month ago, Spruce-Torres has been reaching out to residents in the community to spread the word about the “cultural arts center,” as she and Mercer call the museum. They have found that many did not realize the museum was there or know about the many opportunities it presents.
“We’re trying to hit all age groups from pre-K to teens to adults,” explained Spruce-Torres.
However, because of the broken wheelchair lift, many senior citizens who have difficulty climbing steps or individuals who use wheelchairs have been unable to visit the museum.
The lack of a wheelchair lift will also prevent the museum from being eligible for certain grants. Spruce-Torres said she has been in contact with the Warwick Public School Department and many of the visual arts teachers to create opportunities for students. Those programs would be eligible for financial support in the form of grants from the Rhode Island State Council of Arts, but one of the stipulations of those particular grants is that the building be ADA compliant.
“Until we get that wheelchair lift, it limits what programming I can do,” explained Spruce-Torres.
Mercer has also been reaching out to local businesses in an attempt to gain support for the “Arts For All!” campaign and the museum in general. In addition to adding business experts to the Advisory Board for the museum this year, Mercer and the staff at WMOA have been attending events put on by the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, Warwick Tourism and more to network with more people throughout the city and let them know about the benefits of the museum, such as a potential venue that can be rented out for events. Mercer pointed out that if the museum becomes a well-known venue for events and people begin to rent out the space, the museum could become self-sufficient.
Mercer also sent an “Arts For All!” direct mail package to 70 local businesses hoping to gain financial support for the campaign. She is now in the process of making follow-up phone calls to those businesses.
“I’m very hopeful that once business owners know what the need is, it will work out well,” said Mercer.
Mercer added that public buildings cannot stay open if they are not compliant with ADA requirements. However, because they are working to correct the problem, the museum doors have remained open.
“If you can show you are in the process of raising the funds, you will be fine,” said Mercer.
Spruce-Torres cannot wait for the lift to be replaced so she can connect with local senior centers and members of Warwick’s senior community for programming, helping her accomplish her overall goal of connecting the entire community with the arts.
“I am working on giving the museum a new face and reconnecting it back into the community. We need to be the center of the conversation,” said Spruce-Torres.
Mercer also pointed out that having the museum in the area benefits local artists and art students.
“We have outreach opportunities. We’re trying to engage great opportunities,” said Mercer.
One such opportunity was created for Toll Gate High School senior Amanda Lawrence, who was able to partner with the WMOA and a professional graphic designer to create a postcard and poster for their most recent show, Nature’s Gift, a photography exhibit that will run through Dec. 21. The opportunity was part of Lawrence’s senior project.
Mercer also sees the museum as a resource for college students using the space for assignments that involve looking at different pieces of artwork and writing papers.
“They’ve been coming here to do that,” said Mercer, pointing out that the low-key, friendly and free museum is a welcome alternative to the larger museums.
Finally, the WMOA provides great opportunities for artists from the region.
“Artists are not only getting exposure. Their work is up for sale,” explained Mercer.
Although the WMOA has been able to remain open while raising the funds to replace the wheelchair lift, Mercer said the sooner they can raise the remaining $14,000 the better. For more information or to make a contribution, call the WMOA at 737-0010.