BLAZE OF GLORY: Providence volunteers refuel a bonfire last month at the foot of the Ponte Sisto Bridge on the Tiber River in Rome. Despite past financial difficulty, the nonprofit says it’s currently doing well, taking part in events across the world.
Near the end of 2011 the driving forces behind WaterFire Providence, touted by many as the city’s signature artistic event, painted a picture of a desperate financial state that made them question the organization’s chances of returning for the next season.
Eleven months later, Barnaby Evans, founder and artistic director, was in Rome last week to celebrate the first large-scale European WaterFire lighting Sept. 21-22 and those who stayed home were reporting a much more optimistic outlook.
“People thought we were on life support,” said Peter Mello, managing director. “I want to stress that we are viable. We worked hard at trying to figure out how to manage expenses and grow revenue. This is all a long-term process that you have to continuously work on.”
In a November 2011 interview, Evans told Providence Business News that WaterFire Providence had a cumulative $200,000 deficit acquired over 2010 and 2011. He also said there was little to no hope of raising money to cover that deficit or pay for future installations.
A stretched staff, reliance on a large pool of volunteers and a depletion of savings once marked for a building purchase added to Evans’ worry that the organization might have to leave town.
But grants and fundraising have since brought in enough to reverse the two annual deficits and actually point to an expected net surplus at the end of 2012.
“WaterFire Providence has a very exciting future planned for Providence,” Mello said. “We had operating deficits. Those didn’t really threaten our existence other than if you just ignore it, it threatens sustainability. We have a strategic plan, we’re having a good year and that’s not surprising. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Evans, along with 20 volunteers, returned last week from what he called a successful Rome event.
“The exposure and attention for [the] project in Rome is fantastic for WaterFire in Providence and for the city itself,” Evans said. “It’s always a fantastic endorsement of Rhode Island and Providence to have our signature art installation be invited to create an original piece in a city as rich in art as Rome. That is great news for the arts and design community in Providence.”