When a building goes through a $110,000 facelift, it would be fairly disappointing to its operators if they weren’t happy with the results. Luckily for Elaine McKenna-Yeaw, the director of the Artists Exchange, and Ed Egan, who handles all the fundraising for the Rolfe Street arts center, they think the renovations came out even better than they’d hoped.
“I think it came out even better than we thought it would,” said McKenna-Yeaw during a Thursday morning tour of the newly renovated facilities.
The project, which was partly funded by an $85,000 grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCO), took around three months to complete, McKenna-Yeaw said.
As part of that RISCO grant, the Artists Exchange had to match the $85,000 through their own fundraising, which they had three years to complete. Egan said that they’ve just hit that fundraising total in just one year, which he credits to “a lion share” of five and two thousand dollar grants, as well as the Artists Exchange “sacrificing” their own fundraising money.
“We didn’t want to rest on our laurels because once the $85,000 was matched, we can now go to those same donors and instead of asking for building needs we can ask for program needs,” Egan said about continuing to look for money. “For most arts organizations, all of their blood, sweat, and tears go into programming, buildings needs always get put on the back burner. This was an opportunity to put it at the forefront, and I didn’t want to delay it.”
Those building needs, according to McKenna-Yeaw, included new walls, an improved theater space, upgraded film and media tools, a re-done box office, and upgraded lighting.
McKenna-Yeaw oversaw most of the renovations, all while keeping the arts center open for its thousands of program members. Egan called the renovating process “a learning curve,” and McKenna-Yeaw added that it was hectic trying to maintain the various workers involved, from electricians to AV people to construction workers.
The building now has new flooring, a new ventilation system, and renovated bathrooms as well.
To get the building to their liking, they utilized a network of artists, including woodworkers from Providence Hammer and steelworkers from the steel yard. That additional help created new designs for gallery space, new overhanging lights, a new box office granite/wood counter, and a handmade wooden sliding door separating the common room from one of the art gallery rooms. The wood, McKenna-Yeaw said, is reclaimed from old factories and barns.
She also said there is an artistic touch to the renovations, with hand-woven decorative pieces on the doors and, in the near future, 3-d art pieces that will be hanging from the ceiling, including a wire-sculpted dragon and dragonfly.
The funds also enabled them to buy a green screen and project for their theater rooms, as well as upgrade the sound system that is used for film and theatre productions. That theater holds 50 people at a time and has enabled them to add more show productions, rather than at the other building they own on Rolfe Street, Theater 82. McKenna-Yeaw said that there are five new productions, including two all-women productions, upcoming because of the renovations, and she added that their film and media opportunities have also been enhanced.
“We have a very lively theatre and arts district over here that people need to know about,” she said. “There’s really a lot going on.”
She said that there is now more gallery space because of additional walls that were created. The Cranston East honors program has their art show there now.
In terms of continued upgrades to the Artists Exchange, McKenna-Yeaw said there is a “large wish list” that includes remodeling their kitchen, building up the courtyard in the back used for summer camps, among other programs, and continuing to update their media department.
Egan also said the renovations have allowed them to expand their business opportunities with organizations around the state who are looking for a meeting venue. For example, they will be renting out the Rolfe Street building for $1,500 for corporate gatherings this summer, which will include a bar, all of the space inside the building, food prepared by the Exchange, and 50 tickets to theatre productions that will be running.
The Artists Exchange now has improv comedy every Thursday night and new theatre productions, including a musical this summer, in addition to the art programs they run weekly for students, seniors, and people of “all artistic abilities,” according to McKenna-Yeaw.
She also said that they are looking to rent the club for bridal showers, birthdays, and a variety of other types of events that can help bring revenue into Exchange.
Egan said they’re also trying to get more schools to take field trips to the Exchange. McKenna-Yeaw added that their employees already go into the schools for after-school programs, but they want to “make a boom” with schools by setting up field trips for them that can be designed around their wants and needs.
She said there are also opportunities to sponsor with them, such as through naming rights on some of the rooms.
“At the end of the day, there’s no place like here,” said Egan about finishing up the renovations. “It seems now that the aesthetics of the building match the reputation that the Artists Exchange has.”