As Providence seeks to position itself as the next “It City” like Austin or Portland, it’s important to know where our strengths lie. Most would agree that we shine in one main area: the arts. But because there are many different factions comprising the arts scene here, it can feel like a lot to navigate and support. There can be a sense of needing to choose sparingly, because who can possibly give to everyone? In some cities, such a dynamic would lead to overt or underhanded competing over resources – and surely we have had our moments in that regard.
There are those rare occasions, however, where artists – and the nonprofits who love them – come together in a beautiful singleness of purpose to create, share, inspire and learn from each other – surely the truest and most lofty application of the arts. It may not happen all of the time, but when it does? It’s nothing short of magic.
Back Again for the First Time
PVDFest, a rebranding of last year’s Providence International Arts Festival and spearheaded by FirstWorks, is our best recent example of this type of chemistry – mostly thanks to its scope and size. Last year, block upon block of Downcity was transformed into an interactive wonderland of colorful sounds, sights, smells and tastes. Massive murals on old brick buildings were a backdrop for bands from exotic parts of the globe performing on outdoor stages; turn a corner to see a massive blue statue of a person, its eyes slowly opening, arms raising to the sky, golden halo shards encircling its head; turn another to find children laughing as they paint and create in free workshops; see whimsical and massive Big Nazo puppets cavorting, and food trucks galore and dancing in the streets. A feeling of harmony permeated that almost seemed impossible – was this real life? Could you really bring this many people together in one place without it erupting into some kind of chaos? Perhaps it’s a testament to the city, or perhaps it’s the power of the arts, but everything seemed to go off without a hitch.
Although it derives inspiration from other arts events like Portland TBA, New Haven Arts & Ideas and New Orleans Jazz, Providence’s new-and-improving festival has a flavor that is distinctly our own. Originally planned as a biannual event, with newly elected Mayor Jorge Elorza’s enthusiastic urging in 2015, it was decided that the city shouldn’t wait another year. In October, PVDFest was slated June 2-5, 2016.
Festivals are in our DNA
FirstWorks was founded in 2004 with a mission to connect art with audiences in a multidisciplinary approach incorporating all parts of the community.
“Festivals are in our DNA,” says Executive Artistic Director Kathleen Pletcher, noting that FirstWorks was initially a reinvention of the 18-year-old First Night New Year’s Eve festival in Providence. In 2012, they joined with the City of Providence to put together a comparatively smaller FirstWorks Festival on the Plaza. “Festivals bring people to the arts, build the identity of the city, foster cultural tourism and can also be an economic driver. People who don’t normally go to the theatre or galleries can come and experience art at their own pace; the wide variety of mediums and performances available at festivals allows them to self-curate.”
“We were thrilled that Mayor Elorza really had a vision for the festival as a perpetual part of the Providence landscape,” she continues. “Without that kind of leadership, it would be really hard to pull off.”
Local vs. International
Critics of the festival have claimed that it showcases too many international acts compared to local ones, but Pletcher stresses that this is not in fact the case, and that nearly 60% of performing artists are local – and in other artistic mediums, the percentage is even higher. This misunderstanding might be because, at the time of interviewing, the city’s official Request-for-Proposal process had only completed two days prior, so many acts had yet to be officially confirmed.
The group received strong RFP response and looks forward to bringing in new talent as the city boasts some recent transformations: the newly refurbished Arnold building and several new businesses, to name a few. “It will once again take place in Kennedy Plaza and Washington Street, but the event footprint will increase to Westminster Street and Grant’s Block as well,” says Pletcher. “Visitors will find more surprises in little alleyways and short streets than before. More than 75 local merchants will also be participating as part of the Providence Flea marketplace.”
Supporters argue that bringing in international acts puts Providence on the map, and that the ultimate goal is to make the festival itself a destination.
“Mixing global and local is an important catalyst that FirstWorks has always valued,” says FirstWorks Managing Director Peter Bramante. “Providence has relationships with artists all across the country. Part of the vision going forward is that the festival will be initially a regional, then a national, and then an international draw, furthering last year’s vital intersection of the arts and community building. Dynamic, creative art making is a powerful, energizing force that everyone wants to be part of.”
Certain visiting acts will collaborate in “mashups:” Haitian group Lakou Mizik will work with schoolchildren through the Arts Learning Program, and a composition by violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain will be performed by a local marching band. Others, like renowned Malian drummer Sidy Maiga and Afrimanding, happen to call Providence home already.
“FirstWorks has a specifically curated plaza stage, and our team meets frequently,” says Pletcher. “We look for artists whose art speaks to and presence means something within our community. We build relationships with artists, one example being Rocky Dawuni – he’s a real humanitarian and, like many, is driven by the difference he can make.”
FirstWorks has over 90 partners, illustrating one of its founding missions to “unify fragmentary efforts.” The Dean Hotel and the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy are main collaborators, but groups like AS220, Providence Biennial, the Steel Yard, WaterFire and others will help curate the event. First Works is also helping to throw the Opening Night Party on June 2 at the Providence G Ballroom with a VIP hour with the mayor on the rooftop. Trinity Rep will be illuminated by the Southside Cultural Center, WBRU will host a concert Friday night and Close-Act Theatre company from the Netherlands will become massive dinosaurs roaming throughout the city. The Columbus Theatre will reprise its One Providence Experience concert Saturday with a rotation of bands performing in “the ruins” of the old Providence National Bank. The Avenue Concept contributes stunning murals and visual arts. Attendees can look forward to Afro-Cuban All-Stars, En Masse, Chachi Carvalho, Red Baraat, Mary Beth Meehan, Plena Libre and more.
Finding the Funding
2016’s festival lacks not just lead time but the $200,000 Our Town Grant its predecessor enjoyed, with the City only contributing 6% of the overall budget of $420,000 versus last year’s $580,000. Fortunately, many local businesses have chosen to contribute funds and sponsorships.
“The business community has really stepped up to the plate,” says Pletcher. “Last year, they could interact directly with the arts and start to see them as a driver in new ways.”
Budget Committee co-chairs (and both East Side residents) Johnnie Chace and Pat Moran, who also serves as Downtown Providence Parks Committee Development Chair, are the two exceptional “connectors” working their fundraising magic, without which the event could not take place.
“Our goal for individual contributions is much more modest than corporate ones,” says Chace. “We’re taking the grassroots approach of ‘many hands make light work.’ A groundswell of community support really encourages businesses. We earned the Our Town Grant because we showed we were willing to work together, but this year, we’re challenged by fewer corporations in the city, the fact that it’s a political year, and monies are thin. It’s incumbent upon the entire community to sustain last year’s success – it has to be a collective effort.”
“The parks committee wants to see this downtown transformation take place,” says Moran. “We want people to come be part of the city, help tourism and make one of the biggest and best annual events in New England.”
A Spoke-and-Hub Model
A vision of diverse communities joined together through art and music in beautiful public spaces starts to materialize. “Having a vibrant, safe space where we can all collect and feel part of the citizenry – it’s not a new concept,” continues Moran. “It’s all over Europe. But bringing art to an incredible public space? That’s a home run. Now, combine that with buildings around the space where people live and work and gather: that’s what we want for the remaining 364 days of the year.”
Connection and integration are driving forces. “Providence is not provincial, and the sharing that takes place between local and visiting artists and across mediums inspires other communities too,” says Bramante. “It’s a spokes-to-hubs design: all of the nodes and outlying neighborhoods contribute. You see how a city expands, lives and thrives by its arts community. To watch families stroll down Washington Street with no cars, just observing and enjoying – it makes the whole thing worth it. They can watch their own children perform on the Coastway Cultural Stage.”
“The only other huge supporter we’re looking for is the weatherman,” laughs Chace. “It’s kind of a critical piece. We were blessed last year.”