Artist’s collaborative seeking home

On Block Island
Thu, 09/19/2019 - 5:00pm

A group of art enthusiasts are seeking an island property to serve as their home base for an artist collaborative organization they are developing.

The endeavor, called the “On-Island Collaborative,” is being spearheaded by Ben Martin, John Warfel, and Sue Black, along with members of the local artists’ community, with the goal of creating a viable, self-sustaining artists and craftsmen’s collaborative.

The collaborative would include a “makers space” for craftsmen, an arts and crafts school, culinary workshops and events, performing arts classes, events and jam sessions, community events, a radio station, recording studio, and a teen café. Funding for the organization would be derived from donors, monthly and annual appeals, grant funding, town assistance, rent, workshop fees, and sales of art.

Warfel presented the project to the Town Council at its work session on Sept. 4, outlining thoughts regarding its function, objectives, and organizational model. He also said Sue Black arranged an introduction with the Jamestown Arts Center (, so the group could gather information to learn more about collaboratives.

“When Ben first approached me about this I was skeptical,” he said. “Ben thought the organization could make a difference here on Block Island. He felt it could have a real positive impact on the community.”

The group, accompanied by some supporters, shared information about the endeavor, including the need for an easement on property the town owns across from the Old Town Inn on Center Road.

Per the group, that home base would be called the “Sassafras Art Center,” which Councilor Martha Ball said “does not have a clear title (on the adjoining land). This issue has been floating around for decades, since 1923 I think.”

The building the group is proposing for its purposes is a restored Methodist Church that once operated as a bed and breakfast called “The Sasafrash.”

Despite the title issue, Warfel said it could be an “ideal venue” for housing the collaborative, as well as hosting other community events for seniors, etc.

“We’ve been working on this for a while,” said Warfel. “We’re not proposing anything, but we would like to open the door to your thoughts.”

“The Sassafras building, talk about that,” said Second Warden André Boudreau. “Do we own that?”

“You own the land around it,” said Sue Black, noting that the land would be used for the organization’s parking area.

The group noted that the Sassafras building was for sale, but they need an easement to utilize the land for creating a parking area.

“We’re looking at ways to do this. This is just an idea,” said Warfel, who noted that, “The goal for us is to be self-supporting.”

“If this is the building that is ideal for this, then I think, by all means, you should pursue it,” said Councilor Chris Willi. “This would be, more or less, a headquarters, and it could branch out from there. I think that having a headquarters is critical to it, as a base, if you will.”

Willi said this would be good for activities during the winter, and “thought this was a step in the right direction. I’m intrigued by the whole idea. If you find a space to do it I think that there will be interest.”

Warfel said the group spoke with people in the community, and, “There are a lot of people who want to be engaged” in this type of organization, and its activities.

“I think a lot of people are waiting for us to succeed a little bit before they commit to joining,” said Ben Martin. “We’ve looked at a lot of different properties — and individual owners are kind of a little bit timid.” He said owning their own place, like other successful organizations, is probably the best way to proceed. “The Sassafras building is a really nice spot, for a lot of different reasons.”

Sue Black said the group has been working with the Spring Street Gallery, the Island Free Library and the Historical Society — “all of these places that want to collaborate with us. We’re talking about a real collaborative.” She said the group could use the town’s help by granting it an easement on the land beside the building.

Councilor Sven Risom said he was “excited” about the endeavor. “I love this. I think it’s really refreshing,” he said, noting that the group should focus on “sustainability,” ensuring that “it’s not a one-shot wonder. I think you really need to think things through.”

“What’s the next step John?” asked Lacoste of Warfel. Lacoste suggested that the group look at similar endeavors that have and haven’t succeeded in the past.

Warfel said the next step is to talk to a few other community organizations, including the one in Jamestown, to collect more information about creating a collaborative, and soliciting funding.

“We’ve done some preliminary cash flow analysis. Of course, it would be nice if we got a big donor, but we aren’t counting on that.” He added: “We just feel that the space is really unique — and there’s so much square footage in that room; it’s unbelievable.”

“It’s like a church,” said Ball.

Risom urged the group to do more research and refine its request before discussing again with the Town Council, such as “what kind of easement” it would be seeking, and “the next steps.”

“We look forward to hearing more about it,” said Lacoste.

The next Town Council meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 2 at 7 p.m.