Rhode Island Spotlight: Bristol Art Museum on Main

BAM signDowntown Bristol is about as close to Main Street USA as you’ll ever get. And for two centuries Linden Place has been the centerpiece of grandeur and history in the heart of Hope Street.

But it is the building on a side street adjacent to Linden Place that is beginning to draw Bristolians and out-of-town visitors alike: Three years ago the Bristol Art Museum got its own permanent space from Linden Place and is gradually growing into more than a museum.

“I think our interest now is not so much exhibits, but reaching out to the community,” said Janice Antinucci, who grew up in Bristol. She returns here every summer and is an artist herself. And she sits on the museum’s board of directors. “This is called the Bristol Art Museum. I wanted to see it become something larger than that. We’re becoming more of a cultural arts center.”

For 50 years the museum borrowed the ballroom next door to the main Linden Place building to host art exhibits.

Patricia Woods, whose father helped found the museum in 1963, is also on the board. She and her husband came back to Bristol full-time in 2007 after years of living in New York. In 2008, the museum got an opportunity to take over the old barn behind Linden Place that had largely been used for storage and housed the Linden Place staff back in the day. The first phase of renovations began in 2011 and the gallery opened in late 2013.

BAM beforeThose who saw the before have an appreciation for what the museum has evolved into — a main gallery where rotating exhibits are on display. A key to the building’s renovation was getting permission to break through the wall on Wardwell Street and create a main entrance that now has a mahogany door leading right into the first-floor gallery.

BAM watercolorUpstairs we found a watercolor class being taught one day, and group reading passages from Shakespeare another day. Across the hall, artist Joanne Murrman rents her own studio to paint and teach art lessons. “I saw the barn when it was just raw space, thought it was a very difficult job to do in 2008 and they did it,” Murrman said. “And so I was first on the list to get space.”

BAM artMurrman moved to Bristol eight years ago — in part because she’s a sailor — but also for the arts community, not only in Bristol but in Rhode Island as a whole. “It’s a wonderful state that is supportive of the arts and I think embraces the arts — more so than where I lived in Massachusetts. And I was in the Boston area.”

She notes that Rhode Island does not tax the sale of artwork and she can get studio space for a reasonable price.

The museum holds a periodic Art Al Fresco on the fence outside, giving greater public visibility to various artists’ works. And the museum has rotating exhibits at the public library across the street, another way to increase visibility in the community. “Moving it into this building, changing this facility and updating it, and creating its own authenticity really made it its own place,” Murrman said.

The museum recently got a grant to bring veterans in for a photo shoot. Photographer Arthur Rainville did seven separate shoots, asking each of the participants to recall his or her best day and worst day in the military and to salute at the end. The finished montage of each is a powerful collection of history, past and present.

“The way I think of this museum is it’s small — 4,000 -square-feet — but it has large ambitions,” Patricia Woods said. “My vision for the next few years is that finally we’re in a position where we can offer art classes and programs. I’m not an artist, I’m more interested in having quality programs that are art-related and touch more in the humanities. Linden Place is the crown jewel, so to speak, of the town of Bristol. It’s right on the main street, it’s beautiful, you see it at night and it’s great. But we like to think that we’re the invisible gem.”

A gem that’s gaining visibility with a place to now call its own.

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org

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