On Tuesday, April 10th Rhode Island had a repeat visit from National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman, thanks to Senator Jack Reed.
Senator Reed, who is also chair of the Senate Interior Subcommittee that supports the NEA’s budget, wanted Rocco to see firsthand some of the great things that are happening in Providence and Woonsocket, particularly as it relates to the NEA’s Our Town grant category.
So, while Rocco’s earlier trip to Rhode Island was all about the creative economy (with visits to innovation centers at RISD, the Rhode Island Philharmonic in East Providence and Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket), this visit was all about creative placemaking.
We started out the day in Kennedy Plaza, the central core of downtown (or as we call it here in Rhode Island, DownCity) Providence. The morning was all about sharing with Rocco the amazing work being done by the City of Providence and Greater Kennedy Plaza. A coalition of organizations, with the City, our state’s bus transportation company (RIPTA) and many of Rhode Island’s arts and cultural organizations are working “to transform the downtown Providence area (including Burnside Park, the Bank of America Skating Center, Biltmore Park and Kennedy Plaza) into a lively public square, rich with activity.”
The NEA funded this initiative with a $200,000 grant to help achieve this goal, with particular emphasis on intergrating arts activities into the newly configured public square.
So my amazing colleague Lynne McCormack, Director of the City of Providence’s Department of Art, Culture and Tourism, took Rocco and Senator Reed for a walk around Kennedy Plaza. Accompanying her was Ned Handy, President of Citizens Bank in Rhode Island and Chairman of Greater Kennedy Plaza Coalition; Johnnie Chace, Vice Chair of Greater Kennedy Plaza Coalition (and former RISCA Council member); Cliff Wood, Executive Director and Jen Smith, Program Manager of the Greater Kennedy Plaza Coalition.
After everyone got “the lay of the land”, Rocco and Senator Reed went into City Hall for a private meeting with Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, followed by a briefing on the Kennedy Plaza “Our Town” project and a major HUD Sustainable Communities grant to the City of Providence (a grant program inspired, in part, by the NEA). Our colleague Stephanie Fortunato with the City of Providence briefed Rocco on the HUD initiative, which is designed to help inventory and improve access to arts and cultural assets in Providence.
Following this we all went to Woonsocket, where we toured a number of cultural initiatives accompanied by Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine and Matt Wojcik, the city’s Director of Economic Development.
We started out at Riverzedge Art Project, an amazing youth training organization and recipient of the 2010 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award (formerly, the Coming Up Taller Award). Senator Reed learned about how “RiverzEdge creates positive educational and economic outcomes for youth and their communities through artistic expression, disciplined effort and self-reliance.”
We were also pleased to be joined at Riverzedge by Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts, a steadfast supporter of the arts throughout her political and professional career. Here’s a picture of Lt. Governor Roberts and Rocco talking to our Vista Volunteer guide from Riverzedge.
And, Senator Reed and Rocco got a chance to make their own screen-printed t-shirts!
Upstairs from Riverzedge is a downtown artist’s enclave in the making, thanks to the inspiration of local entrepreneur Marie Deschenes. Senator Reed and Rocco were impressed with yet another example of creative placemaking.
As we were walking up Main Street to our next destination we were joined by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Although I’m sure it was planned in advance, running into important people as you stroll down the street is a very Rhode Island kind of thing. Senator Whitehouse has been a tremendous supporter of the arts, and one of the four Congressional members of the National Council on the Arts, the NEA’s governing body, so his participation in this visit was most welcome.
Speaking of running into people, we met Chris and Hannah Garrison and their 1 1/2 year old daughter Camilla during our walk up Main Street. Hannah Garrison is owner of Wearyourmusic.org, Wearyourmusic.org makes, among other items, jewelry from guitar strings used by the likes of Eric Clapton, John Mayer and Bonnie Raitt. Chris and Hannah moved to Woonsocket several years ago, and turned a downtown loft space into something spectacular.
Our final stop of the day was to the historic Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket. Built in 1926, The Stadium Theatre is one of the few remaining examples of the majestic Vaudeville Theatre era still in operation today. Since being restored in 2001, the Stadium Theatre has developed into a community center where famed international artists such as Liza Minnelli, Cher and George Winston grace the same stage as community arts organizations such as community theatre, dance and music groups.
Rocco was in his element here, and clearly enjoyed the high-energy tour of the theater conducted by its director Cathy Levesque.
Rocco also got a chance to meet Jean Rondeau, President of the Stadium Theatre board and also Chairman of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.
It was clear from both the Providence and Woonsocket visits that Rocco’s mantra, that “Art Works”, is a significant theme here in Rhode Island. We were pleased to have Rocco visit us, and we were grateful to Senator Reed (and his terrific staff, including Moira Lenehan and Chris Albert) for bringing him to us.
Visit often, Rocco!
Randall Rosenbaum, Executive Director
Rhode Island State Council on the Arts