Art Works Blog

Postcard from Providence

Here I am with Mark Smith, executive director of Blue Star Families, at the press conference for Blue Star Theatres. Photo credit: Michael Guy, Trinity Rep

We arrived in Providence last Friday morning, and were immediately met by Randy Rosenbaum, executive director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. This was my third trip to Providence, so he’s become my best friend outside of DC now. He and I have gotten to know each other very well---maybe too well from his perspective. But it’s no accident that their state arts council is so good, even though it is such a small state---he is one of the great state arts council leaders. He is a guy with incredible drive, imagination, and dedication, and it’s always a great pleasure to be with him. He was really our host through the entire trip.

After he picked us up, we went to lunch with Michael Spalter, who’s the chair of the board of trustees at RISD, and Babette Allina, who handles government relations for the school. I sat next to Scott Latham, a RISD board member and a New York real estate magnet. Scott lives part-time in New York, part-time in Providence, and Michael lives in Providence. These are guys who could live anywhere and do anything, and they’ve chosen to live in Providence. They’re very committed to RISD and to Providence in general, and they’re great guys. I can tell Michael is going to be an interesting guy to get to know. He’s not your usual suspect. He’s got a lot of personality, and you could see why he’d be a catalyst for things happening at RISD. It was a lovely lunch at Venda Ravioli, and we got to meet the proprietor of the restaurant, Alan Costantino. It’s like an Italian market with the restaurant in the middle of it. The pasta tasted like it had been made an hour before. It was really great.

After lunch, we went on to Trinity Rep---also one of my favorite places---to hold a press conference. The press conference was to celebrate Blue Star Theatres, which is an initiative that TCG is doing in partnership with MetLife Foundation and Blue Star Families. This new initiative is really an extension of Blue Star Museums into the theater world---the idea is that free or reduced admission is going to be available to service men and women and their families. Senator Jack Reed was there, as was Teresa Eyring, executive director of TCG, Michael Gennaro, executive director of Trinity Rep, Mark Smith, executive director of Blue Star Families, and Dennis White, president and CEO of MetLife. We also had a very military speakers, including Major General Kevin McBride, who is the adjutant general of Rhode Island, and Michelle Faulkner, who is both an ombudsman for the Surface Warfare Officers School Command in Newport as well as a military spouse. Both of them were great, and we were glad to have them there.

It was very gratifying to do this with Senator Reed, who is both an arts guy and a military guy. First thing I did was hand him a copy of our recent issue of our magazine, which focuses on arts in the military. I think he was very pleased with that.

I was telling Senator Reed that Trinity Rep is maybe my favorite theater in the country. It’s a true rep in the ideal of the 1960s and 70s when the resident theater movement was created. It still has a lot of the idealism of that original movement, where it’s a company of actors, they live there, and they stay there month-to-month and usually year-to-year. They do a body of work, often in rep, and they are committed to that community. The idea is not that this is an out-of-town try-out house, or way station to New York. Anyway, it was a great setting and a great press conference.

Then we went on to a Better World by Design conference at RISD. This was a conference conceived and put on entirely by the students. It was the students that invited me---I felt very flattered that they thought I would have something to say to them. The student who introduced me, Andreas Nicholas, bypassed the standard introduction and sang me the Cole Porter song “You’re the Top.” He has a great voice. I talked mostly about arts education: the importance of it, what we need to do to fix it, and how we can reform education to make sure the arts are at the center of it all. It was a great session. There were so many questions from the students in the audience. That session could have gone on another hour, given the quality of the questioning that came from the audience. As I say, that’s my favorite part of the job---when there’s a real give and take with a smart audience.

We then went to dinner with Senator Whitehouse and people from his staff, as well as RISD President John Maeda and Babette Allina. Senator Whitehouse and I have become very good friends. I remember last time when I was in Rhode Island, I was walking with him in Woonsocket and visiting that beautiful old theater they have there, the Studio Theatre. I asked him the same question that I asked Senator Reed earlier in the day: “Am I spending too much time in Rhode Island?” And he said “Not enough.” Senator Reed had exactly the same answer. Because this is my third trip there, more than any place I’ve been.

The restaurant we ate in Providence was called Local 121, and it was in a beautiful, rehabbed building. It has had extensive remodeling done, and has now become a very hot restaurant with artist live/work space above it, and a gallery on the ground floor. I also got to meet Bert Crenca, who’s the artistic director of AS220, which is the organization behind the live/work space. I got to talk to him about what he’s done in the Dreyfus Building, where Local 121 is located, and what he’s done in two other buildings. It was a very warm dinner.

Then I rode with Senator Whitehouse to the Pawtucket Film Festival, and was hosted there by John Baxter, who chairs the Pawtucket Arts Festival. The festival was held at the Slater Mill, and we saw an exhibition of photographs that was done by a woman who teaches photography to kids in public schools. The Pawtucket Film Festival is another example of great creative placemaking. It’s very easy to access, and people really come together as a community---everyone seems to know each other. There are really all walks of life there: people who are poor, people who have plenty of money. It really is a community leveler, this film festival. Admission is ten dollars, it’s well attended. John Baxter, who’s the chair of the Pawtucket Arts Festival, gave me some background about the festival, which has been in existence for 13 years now. I also met Pawtucket’s Mayor Donald Grebian there, and Herb Weiss, who runs a website called Art In Ruins that focuses on architectural preservation in Providence.

The next day I did a video interview for Our Town documentation. I was accompanied by Lynne McCormack. She is the director of Providence’s Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism. She’s really the arts person in Providence who works on behalf of the whole city. During the taping, I met Mayor Angel Taveras, and we had a chance to talk a little bit. My son Dodge, who was accompanying me, got to talk to Mayor Taveras as he had with Senator Whitehouse the night before. Dodge is a politics junkie, and he was just thrilled to be around that level of politicians.

Then we went down to the river for a reception for WaterFire, which is an incredible installation that lights up the rivers up Providence with flaming torches. At the reception, I met Barnaby Evans, who is really the creator of WaterFire. He’s the guy who thought this up and did it first. Both Barnaby Evans and Mayor Taveras had just gotten back from Rome the day before where they were doing WaterFire on the Tiber. So this now is an international phenomenon. I think you’re going to see it in every big international city, but it’s very idiosyncratically Providence as well. I also got to talk with Peter Mello, who’s the managing director of WaterFire. He hosted us and explained what would be going on. Lynne McCormack was there as well.

And then Dodge and I went out on to the boat. I was in one boat with Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University. She just took office in July, so she’s new at Brown and getting acclimated to Providence. She seems very engaged with Providence and the arts in Providence in a way that many college presidents aren’t, which I thought was great. Out on the boat, we could see tens of thousands of people on the banks. The river itself is an example of creative placemaking. At one time, this was all paved over. The river was underneath the city, and they took up the streets to expose the river. What they did to celebrate that was WaterFire, which was great. We did the lighting of the wood pyres. First I got my torch lit and carried it around and lit the fires. I lit about half of them, and Dodge lit about half of them.

After the boats, we walked back to Kennedy Plaza. Now, remember, Kennedy Plaza is where we made the Our Town grant for the expansion and aestheticization of Kennedy Plaza to make it into a real first-class city square. If you talk about art in the public square, that’s Kennedy Plaza, which has beautiful elements---it just needs some aesthetic ideas. This was thrilling. This part of the WaterFire festival was sponsored by FirstWorks. And Kathleen Pletcher, who’s the executive director of FirstWorks, introduced me and Mayor Taveras to speak to a rather large crowd.

Then we stayed on to see the Project Bandaloop performance. I know they performed on the Old Post Office Pavilion a few months ago, but this was about six times as high. It was unbelievable. Half of the company was in red, half were in white. They seemed to be floating freely in air, and were dancing and walking along the side of the building. Then they come off the side of the building, and you have the feeling that time has stopped, that they are suspended not only in the middle of sky, but that the laws of time and the laws of gravity have been suspended. It was thrilling to watch this performance. Dodge was knocked out by it. The whole thing was only a half-hour long, but it was thrilling. The building was lit up with a special spotlight, which looked great because this was at night. Talk about the intersection of the arts and people’s real lives---boy is this a great example. It’s free to anyone that shows up. There’s no admission. Tens of thousands of people are watching this. It’s filling up Kennedy Plaza. It’s accessible. This is a dance company, this is art, but it’s something that everyone can relate to. It really is the intersection of art and the real world, and it is literally art in the public square, which in this case was Kennedy Plaza. So that was great fun.

And then Dodge and I went back to our third meal on Federal Hill, which is the very Italian, funky historic district in Providence. Trips to Providence are always a highlight. It’s a great time, beautiful, and a real arts city. The mayor gets this, as I said in my speech at WaterFire. None of this works without a local political structure that’s engaged. It goes from Senators Reed and Whitehead, to Congressman Cicilline, to Mayor Taveras. They understand how integral the arts are to neighborhood revitalization and to economic development, both in Providence and elsewhere in Rhode Island. It’s no accident that Rhode Island politicians are most supportive of the NEA in particular, and in the arts generally. They’ve been tremendous. It wasn’t a coincidence that this was my third trip to Providence. And there may be another one or two. And I had a great time. It was fabulous.

Add new comment