Arts in the Parks

Providence’s summer of creative collaboration brings hope for a continuously brighter tomorrow... and a lot of good music


Over the past few years, living in Providence has meant dealing with some slight road bumps (pardon the cycling pun). Road conditions are bad in spots, making errand running an exercise in agility. Rental prices and property taxes continue their upward creep, while the economy sputters and coughs. Still, there are many reasons to celebrate the Creative Capital, namely through Celebrate Providence! Celebrate is a series of performing arts events sponsored by the City of Providence, the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Art, Culture + Tourism and the Department of Parks and Recreation. These successful initiatives have helped prove that creative collaboration between city departments can bring something fresh and interesting to our city.

Celebrate Providence is a self-described “neighborhood performing arts initiative,” which awards funding to both Providence arts organizations and neighborhood groups so that they can hold performances and events that are free to the public. These events include music concerts, theater plays and more. The 2012 Celebrate Providence performer roster highlights the wide talent and diversity of the city. The events are held in nearly every neighborhood in Providence. Each group receives an average of about $1,500 to put on an event (or a series of events).

To name a few, Opera Providence held four Sunday performances in Hopkins Square. Across town, the Summit Neighborhood Association (SNA) is gearing up for their 3rd Annual Summit Music Fest, an August concert that has brought up-and-coming folk and rock musicians, such as Brown Bird and Midnight Honey, to Lippitt Park. Spanish-language theater and music from the EACS Theater took place in Roger Williams Park, while Alliance Française’s energetic Bastille Day got an extra kick with funds from the initiative.

The Department has encouraged artists and neighborhood groups citywide to apply for the available funding. This inclusiveness and willingness to experiment has helped make the initiative successful for all involved, from the performers and artists it employs to the city residents who, in this tough economy, have lots of free summer entertainment to choose from. Beyond a few requirements, the City has been open to groups getting creative with their events. Organizers of the aforementioned Summit Music Fest and the Olneyville Housing’s “Jammin’ in
the Park” concert held in Donigian Park invited food trucks to come to the events. Local vendors and small businesses have been given the opportunity to sell their wares and services, as well.

For the artists who are chosen to perform, a slot on the summer roster is a coveted gig, bringing in extra cash and a high profile stage at a well-attended event. A two-time participant is the roots rock band The Mighty Good Boys, scheduled to play the Summit Music Fest. The band’s manager, Don Withersiltz, was highly enthusiastic about the project.

“The Mighty Good Boys love playing outdoors,” he says. “What artist or musician wouldn’t want to be part of a community arts project? These public arts initiatives are an indispensable asset when it comes to growing and strengthening our communities.”

Withersiltz highlighted the exposure for the band, noting that the gigs “help showcase their work to the public for free, instead of playing somewhere that costs money.”

In addition, the Celebrate Providence series has inadvertently highlighted the growing role and influence of Providence neighborhood associations, too. Both the West Broadway Neighborhood Association (WBNA) and the SNA have been revitalized in recent years with younger, hipper members. Since many of these newcomers have young families, it’s an opportunity to give back to their communities and promote a “buy local” ethos, not to mention rocking live music and great local food.

By giving these groups extra funds to hold events in their neighborhoods, the City has acknowledged the vital importance of strong, active neighborhood associations and their impact on the community. In turn, with the ability to hold these events, the neighborhood associations are able to promote their mission to their neighbors and highlight their accomplishments (which helps recruit new members). The need for these neighborhood associations has become invaluable, as their work focuses on genuine quality-of-life issues that cities like Providence are grappling with in these difficult times.

Kari Nel Lang, Executive Director of the WBNA, discussed the importance of the grant funding. “Celebrate Providence offers outdoor summer fun for free to the entire neighborhood,” she says. “It brings neighbors together, which is an important value of the WBNA and the feedback has been very positive.” Turnout for WBNA’s West Side Thursdays has grown every year that the association has received the funding. The Thursday night concert series last month included hip-hop, rock and folk performers and attracted between 300-600 people to each concert.

The collaborative aspect of these events could be a model for success on a larger scale, as City departments, local artists, businesses and neighborhood representatives all work together to make things happen. Witnessing this seamless intersection of the local economy, grassroots organizations, flexible, creative government and a diverse pool of artistic talent will leave any hardened Providence cynic with hope for the future.