With an abundance of music, painting, photography, theater, exhibits and visiting luminaries, 2018 was another banner year for the arts in the region, with Westerly serving as the cultural hub of Southern Rhode Island. It was also a year of change, collaboration and coffee.
In the collaboration department, the idea to establish a mini Lincoln Center in Westerly took a step closer to a reality in 2018 when two institutions joined forces. In June, the United Theatre, the Canal Street movie house where scores of local filmgoers first saw "Star Wars," or "Jaws," announced a $7 million dollar capital campaign — the second phase of its $12 million fundraising effort — to continue with plans for a multi-venue campus for the arts together with the Knickerbocker Music Center.
Maureen Fitzgerald, who chairs the United's board of directors, announced that philanthropist Charles "Chuck" Royce and state Sen. Dennis L. Algiere, R-Westerly, would serve as co-chairs of the campaign, and that the committee had already secured pledges from board members along with "two six-figure gifts."
The project will use several downtown venues —including the Westerly Library and Wilcox Park — and has a number of regional partners: the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School, the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals, Trinity Repertory Company, Robert Ballard’s Ocean Exploration Trust, the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery and the Salt Marsh Opera Company.
The Knick, meanwhile, continued to attract top-notch performers throughout the year. Jon Batiste, the leader of Stay Human, the house band for "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," returned to the Knick in August on his way to play the Newport Jazz Festival. Arriving in the early afternoon at the arts center, Batiste conducted a musical master class with students from the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School, gave a concert in the round later that night (and invited Stonington's own Nora Fox to join him for a number), then charmed the audience right out of the Knick and onto the street where they flooded Railroad Avenue, New Orleans-style, at night.
In June, Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen and his band entertained a packed house at the Knick, and played a 20-song set that lasted for close to two hours, thrilling the audience.
In February, Westerly singer-songwriter Will Evans, a member of the Knickerbocker Collaborative, released a new CD in conjunction with a performance and a signing party at the Savoy Bookshop & Café called "Live at Savoy." "Things are happening in Southern Rhode Island," said Evans at the time. "People are starting to tap into all the music and all the arts in this world between Boston and New York."
The Westerly Sound concert series, curated by Sean Spellman of the Americana band Quiet Life, continued to gain momentum with a number of shows during the year. A show with Haunt the House and Ian Fitzgerald was held at the Forge in Stonington's Velvet Mill, and the Knick hosted a show with indie-folk singer-songwriter Josiah Johnson. And the United was the venue for a concert by folk legend Michael Hurley.
In Watch Hill in August, David Zapatka — a photographer who worked as a freelance cameraman at four Olympic competitions, eight Superbowls, and 20 NCAA men's basketball Final Fours — inaugurated the "Artisan in Residence Program" at the Ocean House. Zapatka, a 1977 Westerly high graduate, grew up in the Avondale section of town. He held a variety of well-attended events at the hotel and at the Watch Hill Lighthouse.
Perhaps the most notable change in the regional arts landscape occurred when The Colonial Theater announced a break in its Shakespeare in the Park program. It was a summer tradition that attracted thousands of people to Wilcox Park each summer. The company decided to focus on a new partnership with the Westerly Public Schools, and worked with high school students to produce "Our Town" in December.
Also in December, Colonial board members accepted the resignation of founder and longtime producing artistic director, Harland D. Meltzer. Officials said Shakespeare in the Park will resume this summer.
In August, hundreds of people flocked to the Westerly Train station for the opening of the new temporary of The Artists' Cooperative Gallery of Westerly. The co-op's gallery, which for many years was located on Canal Street, relocated to the train station while the United Theatre undergoes renovations. The move was described as a unique partnership between the gallery and the state Department of Transportation, one that allows passengers to enjoy an indoor waiting area and access to restrooms while providing a new arts venue for the community. Many predict the gallery will have difficulty moving back to Canal Street.
Savoy Bookshop & Café continued to attract award-winning writers from around the nation. In February, singer/songwriter John Darnielle, whose second book, "Universal Harvester," was nominated for a National Book Award, arrived in Westerly to talk about his newest book, "Wolf in a White Van." Later in the year New York Times bestselling author Lauren Groff visited the bookshop for a book talk and signing in conjunction with the release of “Florida," her new short story collection.
In May, in a joint venture between the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Savoy's sister store, Bank Square Books, a program featuring writer Tommy Orange was held at the museum. Orange's "There There," deals with contemporary Native American life. He was the first author in the museum's "Indigenous Voices Series." In June, Jennifer Egan, who won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her book "A Visit from the Goon Squad," visited the Wheeler Library in North Stonington for a talk about her latest novel, "Manhattan Beach."
The Chorus of Westerly continued to flourish and even ventured farther into Connecticut this year for the first time. The chorus went "on the road on a mini New England tour" with a first-time partnership with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, traveling to the Morgan School in Clinton, Conn., and to Woolsey Hall at Yale, where the chorus performed "Carmina Burana" for more than 3,200 people.
In June, the annual Summer Pops concert, which attracts roughly 20,000 music lovers to Wilcox Park each yea,r was postponed due to rain and on the second night, the concert was performed with "miraculous Amazing Race-like presentation ... before the rain came," said Ryan Saunders, chorus executive director.
The chorus began the season with all sorts of record highs, Saunders said: "Number of singers: 207; number of children singing, 103; number of children at our children's camp 92. We've passed the 750 concert milestone and are on course for 800. We've passed more than 1.1 million in audience members. We've sang in nine countries. We started a free after school training choir program in the Westerly school system. We're $1.1 million in to about $1.5 million in ongoing work on Kent Hall. We're on a roll."
In October, the Stonington Historical Society held a grand opening for an exhibit honoring the life of the late Rosalie "Rollie" Thorne McKenna on the 100th anniversary of her birth. It is called "A Village Love Affair: A New Photography Exhibit & Publication Featuring Rollie McKenna's Images of Stonington."
The exhibit, which will remain at The Richard W. Woolworth Library & Research Center through fall 2019, will eventually be installed at the Old Lighthouse Museum. A publication featuring her photographs of Stonington people, places and events, was also be presented for the first time. McKenna was well known for her portraits of Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and other mid-century literary figures. She lived in Stonington for much of her life and participated in Stonington's arts scene alongside artists such as poet James Merrill, gardener and author Eleanor Perenyi, and her own mother, the novelist Grace Stone.
In Mystic in May, two related exhibits were met with fanfare when "Science, Myth & Mystery: The Vinland Map Saga," made possible through a partnership with the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, was complemented by a second exhibit, "The Vikings Begin: Treasures from Uppsala University," in the adjacent Thompson Exhibition Building at Mystic Seaport Museum.
And now, about that coffee. In early August, the Westerly Library, which continued to present stellar art exhibits, cultural and musical programs throughout the year, opened Coy Café. A coffee shop located inside the former circulation area on the first floor outside the Old Main Reading Room, the cafe is operated by Erika and Tim Lebling, who run the café part of Savoy Bookshop & Café on Canal Street. The coffee shop was named in honor of legendary longtime librarian Sallie E. Coy, who served as director of the Westerly Library and Wilcox Park from 1930 to 1960.