Art Works Blog

Art Works in Rhode Island

Providence, Rhode Island

by Randall Rosenbaum, Executive Director, Rhode Island  State  Council on the Arts

(l-r) U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI); NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman; Randall Rosenbaum, Executive Director, Rhode Island State Council on the Arts; and Keith Stokes, Executive Director, Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation. Photo courtesy of the Rhode Island Foundation

I’ve long admired the staff of the NEA. They’re an amazingly smart and talented group of people, and I am firmly convinced that their leadership has ensured the ascendancy of the arts in this nation for close to fifty years.

But after the recent visit by NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman to Rhode Island I can celebrate one other important trait: their stamina.

I spent one day with Chairman Landesman (accompanied by NEA staff Anita Decker and Jamie Bennett), and our U.S. Senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, who spent the whole day with the Chairman (how many U.S. Senators do you know who would commit one whole day to anything?). By the end of the day they were going strong. Me? When I finally got home I literally fell into bed.

But it was a productive day. Senator Whitehouse and his staff organized a tour of the state, starting off with a morning meeting with representatives of the Rhode Island arts community, held at the offices of the Rhode Island Foundation, our state’s premiere community philanthropy. There was a great cross-section of arts and cultural leaders in the audience, and the panel presentations and discussion were lively. Keith Stokes, Rhode Island’s economic development director, underscored the importance of our state’s arts and design community in putting us in front of our competition in attracting and keeping jobs and developing the creative workforce that business needs. This complemented nicely with Rocco’s central theme that ‘Art Works’;  aside from its obvious contributions to the economy, the arts create a climate that business likes, and Rocco reminded us that  “business follows people, and not the other way around.”

More importantly, Rhode Island has done great work in stating the obvious: that jobs in the arts are like jobs in any other field, just as important to create and preserve. In this, and in other areas, Rocco’s refrain for the day was that, “Rhode Island gets it.”

Other great stops:

A visit to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where Rocco got to try on a pair of gloves and manipulate items on a wall-sized computer screen, à la the futuristic computer setup in Steven Spielberg’s movie Minority Report. We had lunch with the mayors of Cranston, Pawtucket and Warwick, and the Chief of Staff for Providence, hosted by RISD President John Maeda, where we got to talk about using the arts and design to address the very real needs of cities to communicate information clearly to their citizens.

A visit to Trinity Rep, our state’s repertory theater company, was most rewarding. Rocco, as a theater man, understands the itinerant nature of the professional actor. The idea of a repertory company of actors who live and work in a community is something of a dinosaur (actually, Trinity’s excellent artistic director, Curt Columbus, said they like to refer to it as a “unicorn”). Rocco was excited to hear how committed the actors of Trinity Rep were toward that community, and how the community’s support in return was palpable---up to and including passionate discussions about recent productions with people in the supermarket. A true example of how “Art Works.”

Visits to Gallery Z in Providence’s historic Federal Hill showed how local for-profit businesses can help celebrate and support an arts community. A visit to the Carter Center for Music Education in East Providence, the home of the Rhode Island Philharmonic and Music School, gave the Chairman and Senator Whitehouse a great look at an organization that is committed to serving a broad community with high quality music and musical instruction, regardless of socio-economic challenges.

And our final stop of the day was in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, a community that has literally changed itself from a run-down mill town into a dynamic engine of creativity, thanks to the commitment of the Mayor and city to make the arts and culture a centerpiece of their economic development strategy.

Rhode Island was proud to host NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman. As he tours throughout the country, we are convinced that he can point to Rhode Island as a place where “Art Works” every day and in every way.

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