Big Things Can Happen in Small Places

In 2014, the Chorus of Westerly won more than $1 million in Rhode Island state funds to support the renovation of its historic performance hall. Here’s how they did it.  

The Chorus of Westerly is one of less than ten choral organizations in the country that owns its performance hall. Built in 1886, The George Kent Performance Hall, formerly the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church, is considered by many to be one of the finest small concert halls in New England. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building has gone through several expansions and renovations. The latest coincided with its rededication in 2005 in honor of its founding music director George Kent, who retired in 2012. Andrew Howell is the Chorus’s current music director.

Having an “acoustical gem” as your own performance space is a blessing, but it is also a major responsibility. “Of our $750,000 annual budget, some $75,000 to $100,000 is for the building,” says Ryan Saunders, Chorus of Westerly’s executive director. “When you are spending thousands of dollars on an air conditioning system, that is money that is not going into performing, that is not going into your art.”

A number of arts organizations in Rhode Island are burdened with caring for beautiful, and aging, historic facilities, but there had been little collaboration among them to deal with the problem. “Rhode Island is a small state,” Saunders explains, “and we tend to be protective of our own funding sources.”

Named Organizations on the Rhode Island Cultural Board
AS220
Chorus of Westerly
Newport Performing Arts Center
Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School
2nd Story Theatre
Stadium Theatre Foundation
Trinity Repertory Company
United Theatre
WaterFire Providence
Also included as part of the bond is a $6.7 million competitive pool for other RI arts organizations to apply for capital funds and a $5 million pool for historic facilities.

A bond is born

In 2013, leaders of the Rhode Island General Assembly leadership hosted an Arts Charette about how the state might help fund facility improvements and restoration. The idea that emerged was to put forth a state-wide bond that would provide matching funds for physical plant projects.

David Prigmore, a retired businessman and one of the few non-chorus members of the board of the Chorus of Westerly, heard about the bond proposal at a meeting of the Westerly Land Trust. United Theatre, operating out of a historic building in downtown Westerly owned by the land trust, wanted to join other organizations, most of them in the arts-rich Providence area, in the bond.

Seeing an opportunity, Prigmore asked the land trust to include the Chorus of Westerly. “The chorus is a huge part of the town, and it has a historic building,” he told the trustees. “And it has a lot of voters, a lot of singers, and thousands more past singers. The chorus could contribute a bunch to the bond.”

The land trust agreed, and Prigmore and Saunders wrote a proposal, listing a little over $1 million in renovations and upgrades for Kent Hall, beginning with replacement of its slate roof. Among the nine organizations that eventually were included in the bond, the Chorus had the smallest price tag.

The George Kent Performance Hall in Westerly, Rhode Island.

Contributing to the “war chest”

Each of the organizations in the bond was asked to contribute $15,000 to support the marketing and advocacy effort. Prigmore’s argument to the Chorus of Westerly board was that there was little downside. “If nothing happens but we get known by the other arts groups in the state, and the bond fails, we didn’t lose anything,” he told them. “And if the bond happens to pass, then we have a huge upside for ourselves for very little money invested on our part.”

The board voted yes. “We did not want to go forward unless we had 100 percent board backing,” Saunders said. “Then we really worked to turn them into advocates. We spent a good amount of time talking to them about the numbers and facts and training them to tell that story.”

Meanwhile, the executive directors of the nine organizations were meeting regularly to map out the advocacy campaign that would get the bond on the ballot. Board members of several of the Providence-based arts groups had contacts in the General Assembly and the Governor’s office. Armed with data and information about their historic buildings—and the economic impact that restoring them would have in their communities--Saunders and the other executive directors began making regular trips to the capital to make their case.

“We talked about just how important our organizations were to our communities,” Saunders says, “and how much economic activity we help to create. In Westerly, on our performance weekends, the businesses downtown do some of their best business.”

On the ballot

Then-Governor Lincoln Chafee liked the idea of supporting arts facilities projects and included “Creative and Cultural Economy Bonds” in his proposed 2015 state budget. But he stopped short of naming specific organizations as recipients. “We then spent a number of very, very long days in the capital building in Providence,” Saunders says, “advocating to General Assembly members to write the bond so that it allocated funds for our nine organizations.”

Once the bond measure was successfully on the ballot for the November election, the coalition turned its efforts to convincing voters of its importance for the state. “Usually bonds in Rhode Island are for infrastructure things such as transportation or water,” Saunders says. “This one was investing in the cultural infrastructure of the state as an economic driver. We had to convince the public that the arts were really the most important economic sector behind tourism.”

In a poll at the end of August 2014, just 39 percent of Rhode Island voters said they supported the bond—well shy of the 51 percent simple majority needed. The coalition used part of its “war chest” to hire a publicity campaign manager, and then each organization rallied its constituents to get the word out.

From generation to generation

From an advocacy standpoint, the Chorus had a compelling story to tell. George Kent founded the Chorus of Westerly in 1959 with a firm belief in the ability of young children to learn the great choral scores of the music literature. Since that time about a third of the Chorus’s 200 members have been between the ages of eight and 18. Child members sing every concert of the season regardless of the programmed work’s length, size, or difficulty.

For many families, singing with the Chorus of Westerly is a legacy passed down from generation to generation. “There are a bunch of families where the grandfather and the father and his children and grandchildren sing,” Prigmore says.

That kind of large, and devoted constituency represented something different than the other organizations on the bond, says Saunders, who himself sang in the Chorus of Westerly as a child. “We are an organization driven by family, by a community,” he says. “We were the bond coalition member who’s actual members were made of Rhode Island residents. We brought the very human side of the story to the table. You could see the impact that this would have directly in the faces of the people we are here to serve.”

Chorus of Westerly in concert. Photo Credit: Katherine Mehls

A thousand new advocates

That web of Chorus of Westerly members, past and present, played a key role in championing the bond, Saunders says. “We were running around to Rotary Club meetings and senior centers,” he says, “and really using social media very hard. We had the kids replace their own picture with the ‘Yes on 5’ campaign logo on their Facebook pages.”

On the day of the vote, Chorus members spread out to polling sites around the town in a last push to make their case. When the votes were counted, the bond had passed with 61 percent.

“It was nothing short of inspiring,” Saunders says. “One of the great things about a chorus is that you are multiple voices singularly focused on one project. This campaign was like a chorus in many ways. We knew what our purpose was.

“A side effect of this was that we ended up educating people on the value of what we do here. We brought so much exposure to us as an organization. We educated our singers, our board, our audience members. We created a thousand new advocates.”

On the expansion track

The impact of the successful campaign extends beyond the money for much needed renovation projects. The Chorus’ newly-earned high profile is a point of pride and inspiration for the singers and their “little” community. Mike Freitas sang in the chorus from 1986 to 1999 as a child, and from 2009 through today as an adult. “For us in the chorus, sometimes it feels like we are in a different state,” he says. “It’s easy to get forgotten. But this campaign shows that big things can happen in small places.”

The infusion of funds into the building also means that the Chorus will be freed up to grow as an organization. “This is about looking very far into the future,” Saunders says. “It is saying, ‘We are going to be here in 50-100 years.’ It is saying, ‘You just invested a ton in us. We will invest a ton in you. You took a leap of faith with us. We will take a leap of faith by not shying away in our programming and continuing to engage in the community.’”

Executive director Ryan Saunders and long-time Chorus of Westerly singer Shirley Andrews on voting day.

Lessons Learned

Don’t be insular. “You can do a lot when you are collaborating,” Saunders says. “If the chorus had tried to do this by itself it would not have worked. When we looked at our sector unified and planned strategies together, we are much more powerful of a force.”

The coalition of leaders in the arts in Rhode Island continues to meet, and now that it has funding for its infrastructure projects, has plans to collectively pursue major grants for arts programming in Rhode Island. “There are going to be things in the future that happen just because of the relationships that we built,” Saunders says. “Things more important than that we got a new roof.”

Diversifying your board is one way to make sure the organization has its finger on the pulse of possible collaborative projects. The Chorus of Westerly recently changed its bylaws to allow a greater percentage of non-singers to sit on its board. “There is always a benefit if you have some board members who are well connected with other organizations in the area that have things going on that might be beneficial to you,” Prigmore says.

Don’t be afraid. “It’s intimidating to be before a legislative committee and see yourself on an HD screen with a microphone in front of your face and people all around you,” Saunders says. “But the general assembly members are human beings. And your success is their success.”

“If you had asked me a year ago, I would have told you that we have this dream, and it’s not going to pass, but we’re sure going to try,” Saunders says. “I hope other states look at Rhode Island now and say, ‘That is interesting. I wonder if we could pull that off here.’”

Make sure everyone has a role to play. The Chorus made sure that everyone had a job--whether calling voters, talking at community meetings, working the polling site, posting on social media, or putting up posters. “We said, ‘This does not pass unless all are involved in this,’” Saunders says. “We gave out jobs in rehearsal and didn’t let anyone not participate.”

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