Providence, Rhode Island: Culture Fest

Providence, Rhode Island: Culture Fest

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Boris Bally, Transit Chairs, re-used aluminum signage {h. 48 in., w. 16 in, d. 21 in}.

"To me the appeal of Providence is its warmth and unpretentiousness, the proximity to both New York and Bowon while being able to afford having a shop."-Boris Bally

Every summer, on a Saturday night in mid-July, the residents of Providence, many wearing costumes and masks, form a parade and, led by their much-loved mayor, David Cicilline, march and dance through downtown toward the Providence Black Repertory Company. The party continues into the night, both outside and inside the theater. This parade marks the conclusion of Sound Session, a weeklong "genre-defying music festival."

Sound Session is the epitome of how art and culture permeate this city, with craft, art, music, design, theater and the culinary arts intermingling. With a population of just over 170,000, Providence, home to seven colleges and universities, including the Rhode Island School of Design, Brown University and Johnson & Wales University, has more artists per capita than any other U.S. city-a fact that might surprise outsiders, but not its residents, who are very aware of all the city offers.

"To me the appeal of Providence is its warmth and unpretentiousness, the proximity to both New York City and Boston while being able to afford having a shop," explains Boris Bally, a metalsmith and furniture designer who moved to Providence from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1997 with his wife, Lynn.

"It definitely has a life to it that keeps things vibrant," says Deb Dormody, who is a founder of Craftland, an annual craft fair that is being held this year from December 5 through Christmas Eve. "People don't come here to 'make it' though. People come here and create their own artistic lives. I think that's the key to what makes it great-people have to work for what they want and that has really evolved into an atmosphere of encouragement."

"There's so much opportunity here," adds Bert Crenca who founded AS220, a nonprofit community arts space, in 1985. "The opportunities that exist today are multiple of what existed when we started." Crenca knows what he's talking about. AS220 is considered by many people to be the epicenter of the arts community in Providence. Its mission, to provide "an unjuried and uncensored forum for the arts," allows anyone who lives in Rhode Island the opportunity to exhibit or perform there. It also provides both residential and studio space at two different locations, with a third on the way.

The urban project Firehouse No. 13 was born of the same mind-set. Based in a former firehouse, it offers "experimental" space that can work as a gallery or performance area while also offering residential space on the second floor. Also for craftspeople and those who yearn to be craftspeople, the Steel Yard, located at the historic Providence Steel and Iron site, offers a foundry, ceramics studio and blacksmithing and welding shops, along with education programs and exhibition space. "Each one of these organizations is unique and provides a unique opportunity for artists," observes Crenca.

Now with RISD's new Chace Center, a glass and brick structure designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect José Rafael Moneo that houses exhibition space and classrooms, the influence of art and craft continues to expand. The center, which opened this September with a stunning installation of RISD alumnus Dale Chihuly's blown glass works, provides Providence with an additional 43,000 square feet of space in which to both create and view art.

But there is another craft that holds sway in Providence and can be experienced firsthand there. Providence is a foodie's dream. For one thing, it is home to the famed College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales; for another, the residents consistently hold restaurants to a high standard-a McDonald's closed for lack of business. At Chinese Laundry, the trendy new Asian fusion restaurant located in what was once a Chinese laundromat, the chopsticks are placed atop mini ceramic Buddhas, and the check is presented in an origami holder. At Mediterraneo one can enjoy authentic Italian food while gazing at the blown glass sculptures above the restaurant's bar.

The local government deserves considerable credit for the cultural flowering. Just as he led the parade through downtown, Mayor Cicilline continues to pave the way for the community. "He is very interested in finding ways to develop the arts," says Martina Windels, a former jewelry gallery owner. "He has a real interest in providing after-school and neighborhood programs."

"In a variety of ways both the city and state have been instrumental in helping us develop," says Crenca. "They provide low-interest loans and grant money. They help us with the logistics [of meeting] building and fire codes."

Then there is the former mayor-the notorious Vincent "Buddy" Cianci. Cianci, who was convicted of assault, left office in 1984, then was re-elected in 1991 before he was convicted of conspiracy to run a criminal enterprise and sentenced to nearly five years in prison. But his popularity has hardly waned-he now hosts both a radio and television show. One reason for this un­dying support is that Cianci was a major proponent of the arts during his tenure. "He was a very smart politician," says Bally. "He knew that art brings people to the inner city and that it keeps a city alive. He knew that art was the 'soul' of a city."

"AS220 is certainly indebted to him," adds Crenca. "In the early days when people didn't understand what we were trying to accomplish, he stepped up and tried to provide as much support from the city as he could."

Yet, for all of the appreciation and government support for the arts, Providence remains a city where artists find it difficult to sell work. Windel's gallery, Martina & Company, closed down after almost 10 years of being in business. "There's a ton of people making stuff, it's just not a strong buying scene," says Windel.

"I'm guessing most of the buying happens in the neighboring cities," says Bally. "My favorite curators had a hard time keeping their galleries open here." But, looking at it from another angle, this just may say something positive about Providence artists. "I find it very endearing that the people who are making the art and playing the music are doing it because of their passion," reflects Windels. "The commerce part of it is secondary."