Art Works Blog

Postcard from Rhode Island

Washington, DC

Here I am after the Arts and the Economy Roundtable with (l-r) John Maeda, Hoon Kim, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Photo courtesy of Office of Senator Whitehouse

Rhode Island is a small state, but it?s totally an arts state. You know, I would say, per capita, it?s the artiest state in the country. Everybody there gets it---in the private sector, in the political structure. I had an amazing two days there. The first day, we visited the Steel Yard, which is a project undertaken by Clay Rockefeller, and it?s an old steel mill. Unlike other industrial sites---like the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria, for instance---this is not a repurpose of an old industrial site, but an extension of its purpose. What they?re doing there is still iron working, still industrial design, still industrial applications, within the framework of this old steel mill. We saw the foundry and the people making the works of art they?re going to be shipping across the country. But they?re also building a movie theater there, there are going to be stores---it?s really exhibit A for how art can be part of building a new economy on top of the old economy. I thought it was a very, very instructive lesson in that. Clay Rockefeller is a very dynamic young visionary, and I?m excited about what they?re going to be doing there. Drake Patten, who is his executive director really, is a very compelling person. I hope we can maintain contact with them and use them as an example of what the arts can do to old industrial sites.

The next day was fantastic---a whole day with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who is the successor to Claiborne Pell?s seat. Claiborne Pell was really the creator of the NEA, and an arts visionary in the Senate. Senator Whitehouse is carrying on that tradition. We spent the whole day with him visiting arts organizations, doing panels, doing a luncheon. He was with me from beginning to end. We rode together, and I really got to spend some time with him and get to know him. He?s a fantastic person as well as a leader in the Senate.

We started out with an Arts and the Economy roundtable at the Rhode Island Foundation, hosted by Owen Heleen, the foundation's vice president for grants. Randy Rosenbaum was also there; he?s executive director at the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. Randy was with us most of the day too, at all the different places. The state arts council situation in Rhode Island is better than it is in most places. The city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island really do understand the value of the arts.

During the roundtable we had a good back-and-forth about what?s going on at the NEA, what we?re doing in conjunction with mayors, with cities, with our Art Works program. Later in that program, we introduced Hoon Kim (a Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) graduate), who has designed our new logo. Hoon presented the logo and talked about how he created it. In the second half of the presentation we had a larger group that included a lot of Rhode Island arts leaders, including Tony Estralla from the Gramm Theatre in Pawtucket and John Maeda, who is the president of the RISD and a brilliant thinker and a great leader of RISD, which is one of the oldest and most important design conservatories in the country.

After the roundtable John Maeda hosted a lunch at the RISD President?s home. Many of Rhode Island?s mayors were there, and we got to talk about art and its role in their communities. Don Grebien, the mayor of Pawtucket, was there and we later went with him to some sites in Pawtucket. There was Scott Avedisian, the mayor of Warwick, where they have an important museum. We had Allan Fung, the mayor of Cranston, and Leo Fontaine, the mayor of Woonsocket, and it was just a great session with the mayors. What I said to them is that mayors are our natural allies. They?ve been our fiercest advocates for what we?re doing. We have a closer affinity with the mayors than we do with anybody else.

After lunch we went to what might have been the high point of my whole trip, which was a visit to Trinity Repertory Company. That?s where my friend Oscar Eustis built his career. And Curt Columbus, who?s the artistic director there, is a great guy. He brought a bunch of his actors and people working with the company there, along with the board chair, and everybody associated with that company. And it was thrilling to me to see a repertory company that?s carrying on the ideals that the resident theater movement in the United States started with---the idea of company. That there?s a community of people that relate to each other, that do a body of plays that relate to each other, and then, finally, intersect with the community that they live in. And people build careers, or at least extended commitments to a theater, rather than just ?catch as catch can? from production to production.

I mean, Curt likes to give a full season of employment to an actor. There are actors who have been there many years. It really is a community of artists. And to me, this is one of the few places in the country---you can probably count them on one hand---that?s carrying on the resident theater ideal. The actors are full of passion for what they?re doing, very committed to this theater, and it was a thrill to see the Trinity Rep. I was really heartened by what was going on there. They?re not interested in moving everything to Broadway, or trying to get national attention for everything. They really are relating to their community and doing high-quality work for their audience. And that was great to see.

We then visited Gallery Z with Mayor Angel Tavares, who is another mayor who understands the value of the arts in his community. That was in downtown Providence where there?s kind of an arts district that has sprung up around Gallery Z. You know, this was an area that was run down, crime-ridden, full of violence; people didn?t go there. Now, Gallery Z and other arts institutions are there, and it?s transformed the neighborhood. Again, it?s what we?re talking about at the NEA with creative placemaking. Bringing art into these places makes a huge difference.

Next it was off to East Providence to visit the Rhode Island Philharmonic. David Beauchesne showed us around, and it?s great what they?re doing there. Again, they?ve taken a space, they?ve completely gutted the inside, and they?ve really made this a state-of-the-art place for both the professional company and for educational purposes. We attended some of the classes, met some of the students, and heard some of the students give a performance. That was very encouraging to see that kind of work being done in East Providence.

Next we drove out to the Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket. Mayor Grebien joined us there, as did Herb Weiss, who?s a great arts visionary and guru in Pawtucket. It?s a beautiful facility. Every week, there?s a market there where two thousand people go, and there are art galleries all along through it and stores. And again, it was a repurposing of a building with arts at the center.

It was a long day, but a very, very exciting one. And the great thing is that Senator Whitehouse and I were together every step of the way. He?s a great friend of the arts and of the NEA.

So what can we learn from Rhode Island? Well, I think Rhode Island is really an old line industrial state, with a lot of the old economy being phased out. And it really is at a point where we can start to visualize how the old economy can be transformed into a new economy through the arts. I think Providence and other cities in Rhode Island are going to come back and the arts are going to be a big part of that.

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