Providence shifts gears from industry to art

Providence shifts gears from industry to art – city beat

Jane Hart

Providence, R.I., is an eclectic mix of quaint neighborhoods, towering smokestacks, historic buildings and a booming downtown that’s been undergoing a facelift for the past 25 years.

“You see the whole gamut here,” said Catherine Little Bert, owner of Bert Gallery, which is located along the city’s historic Old Harbor waterfront. “Providence, historically, has been a major industrial town–that is what its wealth was built on. What is interesting is that by going around the city you can see the layers of history.”

Bert said the city’s popular cultural institutions, such as the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), developed as a result of the wealth that the city’s once powerful textile, metal and manufacturing industries helped create. “With wealth came a responsibility to bring culture to the area” she said.

The city’s industrial glory days are far from over. In the past 25 years, Providence has witnessed a groundswell of new construction and growing interest from the banking industry, which has increased its presence in the area.

Bert’s gallery, which opened in 1985, specializes in 19th-century American painters and contemporary artists. Paintings range from $125 to $5,000.

Sixty percent of Bert’s clients come from outside of Rhode Island. The reason, she said, is because the cost of doing business in Providence is so much less than it is in nearby cities such as Boston or New York. She finds her clients are usually pleased with the quality, selection and value of the artwork they find in Providence. And artists are so pleased with the city that they are moving here in droves, she said.

“Contemporary artists like coming here because they have access to a lot of different supplies and materials because of the foundries,” Bert said. “They are also drawn to the area because of the light and the coastline and because the landscape is so accessible.”

Wide-Open Spaces

While there are a lot of artists in Providence, there is also a lack of venues in the city where they can show their work.

As a result, many local artists end up selling their work out of town. To address the problem, Peter Bramante, executive director of the Arts and Business Council of Rhode Island, helped create The Space at Alice, a new co-op gallery where New England artists can display their art.

The gallery, which opened in October, is located in what is often referred to as “Downcity,” a part of Providence that has become the center of its arts and entertainment district. “The Space at Mice is a step toward having a more central location for people to view art when they come to Providence,” Bramante said.

An Arts Gem

One can’t talk about Providence without mentioning the Rhode Island School of Design. Established in 1877 with about $1,600 from a local women’s club, RISD has about 2,000 students and is considered one of the country’s preeminent schools of design. Many RISD graduates remain in Providence after graduation.

The school’s RISD Museum of Art is home to 80,000 works, ranging from ancient to contemporary art as well as rare and special collections. The museum was established in the late 1800s using donated works and collections from local families who saw the museum as a way to teach artists about the art world beyond Providence, a mission that continues to this day.

“Because we came out of the community of that era, we have materials that go back to the China trade [as well as] 18th-century American furniture and decorative-art pieces,” said Lora Urbanelli, the museum’s interim director. “We also have the largest collection of Japanese Noh theater costumes outside of Japan.”

Students can show their artwork in the school’s numerous student galleries. One of the newest galleries is rim works, which opened two years ago as both a gallery and retail store that exhibits and sells works by RISD alumni and faculty.

Matthew Bird, director of risd works, said the gallery/store has a steady rotation of objects and fine art. He sells everything from 70-cent postcards to $5,000 handsewn quilts.

Several time each year, RISD hosts a sale featuring works by students and alumni. The show includes everything from original fine art and limited editions to ceramics and jewelry. “People come from far and wide for this fabulous showing,” said Barrett.

Building an Arts Scene

Barrett believes that the creative spirit that helped create Providence’s rich artistic scene has also helped the city evolve into a much more attractive and livable place than it once was. “Ten years ago you didn’t even see the river that runs through downtown,” she said. “Now–through redesign and development–it is a center, a spine, an artery. The waterfront is a very important aspect of the city. The efforts of architects and designers to open up the city for public life was an important aspect of this city’s renaissance.”

Several times each year, artist Barnaby Evans takes full advantage of the river when he presents “WaterFire Providence.” To create the art installation, Evans places about 100 braziers along the river, then sets them on fire amidst a soundtrack of world music. The result is a musical river of fire, which winds its way through about one-and-a-half miles of downtown Providence. Since Evans started presenting the installation in 1994,”WaterFire Providence” has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to the city. The event begins at sunset and ends at midnight on scheduled nights throughout the year.

Gallery Night Providence, which takes place on the third Thursday of most months, is another popular event that draws people to Providence. Here, locals and tourists alike can walk, or take a trolley ride, to visit more than 25 of the participating galleries, museums and historic sites that open their doors to create more visibility for the Providence art scene.

Bramante said Providence’s artists, city officials and businesses must now work together to help nurture the city’s arts scene. “By getting people to work together, we have a lot of valuable assets that we can market, promote and sell,” he said, adding that some city officials’ plans to develop a new office of arts, culture and tourism is a step in the right direction. “We need continued work on building an infrastructure in Providence so we can create a real arts destination for people to come to,” Bramante said.


* Bert Gallery, (401) 751-2628

* Arts and Business Council of Rhode Island, (401) 521-5000

* Rhode Island School of Design, (401) 454-6100

* risd works, (401) 277-4949

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