Grants & Scholarships
A cultural icon of the arts comes back to life
The remarkable revitalization of the United Theatre
It was the event of the year in Westerly: the opening night gala of the United Theatre on January 18, 1926. It featured five acts of Paramount Vaudeville, including the Seven Rainbow Girls, Eddie Cooke and the Shaw Sisters, Bernard and Ferris, Exposition Jubilee, and the Jean Jackson Troupe.
It was a glamorous launch for what would become the region’s go-to theater for vaudeville. Through the years they moved on to silent films and, in 1929, the United was the first theater in the region to showcase the talkies. Eventually, it shifted into a full-time movie theater showcasing the biggest and best first-run features. When Star Wars was released in 1977, the film was such a hit that it played at the United for an entire year. But by 1986, the theater had faded into disuse.
Fortunately, an ambitious revival of the United Theatre has been in the works for years. The Westerly Land Trust purchased the building in 2006 as part of its Urban Initiative focusing on the redevelopment of commercial properties in areas of historic significance to the Town. The State Cultural Bond Initiative, approved in 2014, helped to secure funds towards its restoration, with the United Theatre establishing itself as a nonprofit the following year.
Today, the United building and the adjacent connected former Montgomery Ward building are being totally renovated to create a multi-use arts complex thanks to a $12-million capital campaign to convert the old theater into a “mini-Lincoln Center” where everything from opera to dance to film, theater, and music can be taught, showcased, and performed.
Initial efforts raised $6 million, which included community pledges, historical state tax credits, cultural bond funds, challenge grants from The Champlin Foundation and the Royce Family Fund, and support from board members. Board vice chair, philanthropist, and longtime Watch Hill resident Chuck Royce tapped into Westerly’s summer community, raising another $3.6 million.
By May of 2019, when the project broke ground, it became apparent that the board could no longer operate as a solely volunteer-run organization. The Rhode Island Foundation stepped up with a grant that provided additional resources, making it possible for them to hire an executive director. Following a national search, the board selected someone from its own backyard to fill the role —Lisa Utman Randall. A poet, writer, teacher, and passionate supporter of the arts, Randall has more than 25 years of experience growing arts organizations in the state, including transforming the Jamestown Arts Center into a bustling cultural hub.
The Ocean Community United Theatre — the official name — will provide Westerly with its first year-round venue for jazz, opera, ballet, modern dance and popular music; a gallery for visual artists; its first multi-screen art house cinema; education space; and the town’s first comprehensive community music school.
A black-box theatre will accommodate up to 650 people, a 90-seat cinema will feature first-run and revival films, and a 30-seat flexible theatre will be used as a micro-cinema or exhibit space. An 11,000 square-foot education center will host classes, workshops, and studios in music, film, visual and performing arts. The education center will also be home to the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School, where 300+ weekly lessons and classes will take place.
The complex will also house the Washington County news bureau of The Public’s Radio, which means live-streaming, co-programming, and podcast workshops. When asked “Why Westerly?”, Torey Malatia, president, CEO and general manager of The Public's Radio, points to Westerly’s rootedness in the history of New England—including immigrant New England, its dense multicultural layers, and its central pivot-position between multiple states and the rest of Rhode Island. “Westerly has a vast and rich artist community, a long performing-arts history that is still very vibrant, and a spirit of rebuilding that is very positive.”
“We have such an incredibly tight-knit arts ecosystem here in Rhode Island,” says Lisa Utman Randall. “Artists who are generous with their time, their knowledge, and who want to collaborate — and that is amazing. Our state arts council and the Rhode Island Foundation have brought together so many cohorts — creating lifelines that make resources available to arts organizations.”
“I love the mission of bringing the arts to community. It’s literally what I have dedicated my life to for more than three decades. It’s transformational — the performing arts, visual arts, arts education touch people and open people in ways that nothing else does.”
Support for the Arts across Rhode Island
The Foundation has long-supported arts organizations of all sizes, from Westerly to Woonsocket.
Arts organizations stimulate creative thinking among community members, encouraging people to see things in new ways, to connect more deeply, and to address challenges and opportunities with creativity.
The following is a selection of the arts organizations that we invested in, via discretionary grantmaking programs, in 2020.
Alliance of Artists Communities in Providence, for the Artists Relief Fund
AS220 in Providence, for operating support
Island Moving Company in Newport, for operating support and arts integrated learning
Mixed Magic Theatre and Cultural Events in Pawtucket, for operating and capacity support
New Urban Arts in Providence, for youth membership in the arts
RiverzEdge Arts Project in Woonsocket, for the arts education and training program
Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre in Warwick, for operating support
Teatro ECAS in Providence, for improving young lives through the arts in Providence and Pawtucket