As founder of AS220, Bert Crenca travels frequently. He often speaks to national audiences about the alternative-arts organization, one of the largest such nonprofits in the country.
Started at a time when downtown Providence was in decay, AS220 now owns three downtown buildings, provides work-studio space for more than 50 artists, as well as performance space, a restaurant and exhibit opportunities. It operates a separate youth program.
It’s a success story he says is well-received outside Providence. But back home, he says the impact of the arts, especially on economic development, isn’t always acknowledged.
Providence through the last century had a history of recognizing the importance of the arts, including through its architecture and design.
“These are remarkably designed buildings we’re looking at right here,” Crenca said, motioning toward buildings that line lower Weybosset Street. “Why do we do that? It’s about hope. It’s about aspiration. It’s about connecting us as human beings.”
But Crenca, like others, wonders what happened to the city’s historical commitment to public art.
Providence is branded the “Creative Capital,” which celebrates its connections to innovation, design and art. It is the home of one of the nation’s pre-eminent design schools, Rhode Island School of Design. But the city, unlike several hundred others across the United States, does not have a public art program with a dedicated funding stream.
In 1980, under the first administration of the late Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., Providence approved a public art program, to be fed by 1 percent of all city-involved construction projects, including new city buildings, renovations, and street and sidewalk repairs.
But the funds were never collected. And the Art in City Life Commission, created by an ordinance to oversee the process, was never activated.
In 2016, Mayor Jorge O. Elorza revived the commission, now tasked with creating a standardized process for public art, memorials and monuments on public lands, and establishing guidelines for developers of private land.
Whether a dedicated funding mechanism will be created is another question. Although Elorza supports one, he also said he wants to see the results of a master plan for public art, now under development by the commission. It’s scheduled to be released in March.
If the city is going to call itself a creative capital, it needs to live by those words through action, Elorza said. “It’s part of our identity here in Providence. We celebrate our arts and artists, and we put that at the center of what we do.”
Joseph R. Paolino Jr., former city mayor and current owner of Paolino Properties, says he sponsored the proposal for a public art program ultimately approved in 1980 when he was a city councilman. But possibly for financial reasons, or lack of advocacy, the effort was dropped.
Paolino followed Cianci into the mayor’s office and didn’t pick it up either. He regrets that, he said recently, given the amount of development that’s taken place over the past 40 years.
“I just don’t think there was a constituency pulling for it,” he said. “It’s one of my personal disappointments, that I didn’t do that.”
On property he owns and is redeveloping, including the Case-Mead Building downtown, Paolino said he’s tried to use architectural lighting as a form of public art.
Not only should the city revive the 1 percent on public construction, he says, but it should require a similar commitment from developers of private projects that receive state funds. He cited the Rebuild Rhode Island tax-credit program, which provides funds for significant commercial development.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Paolino said. “Imagine what the city would look like in 20 years.”
Under Stephanie Fortunato, who leads the city’s Department of Art, Culture and Tourism, the commission revived by Elorza has reviewed public art policies in several cities, including Indianapolis, San Jose, Calif., and Arlington, Va. In all, some 400 cities in the U.S. have a dedicated public art program, according to Fortunato.
“Public art is an important vehicle for understanding a place,” she said. “We’ve made public-art master planning a priority for our department because we see opportunities to enhance public spaces. With the planning document, we’ll be able to be more strategic about how we deploy our resources, and how we seek those resources.”
Using grants and general fund proceeds, Providence has made several direct grants to public artists and architects, including the support of temporary installations that coincided with the Providence International Arts Festival, now called PVD Fest. Four more commissions are planned this coming spring.
A mural will be installed this year at the Empire Loan site in Providence through a public-private partnership.
But the lack of a program with a dedicated funding source has resulted in a piecemeal approach to public art in the city, Elorza acknowledged.
For the past six months, the arts commission has worked with a consultant to develop a master plan for public art, including identifying potential revenue sources to finance it. Part of the master-plan process is gaining broad, public support for public art as an investment in the city economy, Elorza said.
“If you look at where companies are locating right now, they’re locating primarily in cities … that are vibrant, active, that celebrate diversity,” Elorza said. “They have a lot of culture and they have a strong arts scene. It’s incorrect to frame this as art versus economic development. The truth is, they go hand in hand. You can’t have the economic development we want to have unless you have a strong arts scene.”
Despite the absence of dedicated funds, the city has directed more general-fund resources to public art in the last several years, Elorza said.
One of the most visible installations that involved city funding is “SeenUnseen,” a series of outsized photographs of city residents mounted on buildings downtown. The eight-photo series by Providence photographer Mary Beth Meehan initially was financed through private, state and city grants. Four new photos will be circulated this year and were funded by the city, according to Fortunato.
Other arts installations across Providence have been commissioned by private companies, building owners and nonprofits.
AS220 in 2010 had a design by artist and RISD graduate Shepard Fairey painted on the side of the Pell Chafee Performance Center.
Other building murals have been coordinated by The Avenue Concept, a nonprofit also based in Providence aimed at public art. Its projects have included the vivid, lifelike “She Never Came,” a mural of a dejected man lost in thought, flipping a woman’s ring in his hand.
The Avenue Concept commissioned the mural by Bezt, a Polish artist. The project received funding support from the Dean Hotel and Adler’s Hardware. It was completed for the Providence International Arts Festival in 2016.
Artists say the undeveloped land that is part of the Interstate 195 Redevelopment District, including some green and park space, represents a great opportunity for the display of public art in Providence.
But beyond temporary installations, designed to occupy the cleared land until buildings start to rise, no agreement has been reached for public art installations in the area.
The executive director of the commission overseeing the district, Peter McNally, through a spokesman said public art is valuable and an important part of urban development and design. “While the commission does not have a set policy for public art on the I-195 land, we have worked with artists in the past and some of our pop-up art is still on display on I-195 parcels.”
The commission is looking forward to continuing its work with the city, McNally said.
The master plan, Fortunato said, is expected to include guidelines for developers of private land – which would apply to the I-195 land – but not a requirement. The city department has had ongoing conversations with the district commission about ways that public art can help enliven the district, Fortunato added. While no programming has been permanent, these discussions lay the groundwork for them seeing the space as a location for cultural experiences, she said.
Nevertheless, some artists are frustrated, in part because development interest in the district has started to visibly increase.
Founded in 2015, The Avenue Concept has tried without success for more than a year to reach an agreement with the commission to incorporate public art – which it says it could finance – into the district.
Yarrow Thorne, Avenue Concept’s founding director, said he’s had many conversations with the executive leadership of the commission, including McNally. But so far, he hasn’t been allowed to speak to the full commission.
“We’ve offered them expertise, access to art, all sorts of things,” Thorne said. “For whatever reason, they’re reluctant to put anything into writing, either a [memorandum of understanding], a letter of intent, anything.”
In its first year, the nonprofit spent nearly $107,000 on program services in Providence, according to its 2015 IRS filing. This included the “Influx Program,” which placed 20 works of art by local, national and international artists in the downtown and in a “cultural corridor” between Classical and Central high schools.
Since 2016, at its own expense, Avenue Concept has installed a series of prominent sculptures downtown, on squares and at intersections where pedestrians can view the work up close, Thorne said.
“We’re doing things a lot of cities would kill to have, and we’re doing it for free,” he said.
The sculptures include works by artists who live in Rhode Island, as well as international artists. For about six months, Colossal Fragment, a sculpture by South African artist Lionel Smit, was at the intersection of Fountain and Empire streets, near the Hasbro Inc. building. It was transferred in January to an outdoor exhibit in Miami, said Thorne.
The Avenue Concept also installed a pad at Emmett Square, which now hosts Cosmic Flower, a work by the Providence-based sculptors Brower Hatcher and Marly Rogers.
Hatcher, interviewed at his studio in South Providence, said he has about 50 works of public art around the U.S. His sculptures feature tiny stainless-steel rods, connected to form sometimes massive geometric matrixes, or super-structures. Within each, Rogers creates small objects, often coated in vibrant colors, that tell a story related to the location.
So, their installation at Dallas Love Field airport depicts small mammals and objects that signify flight: hot-air balloons, jet airliners, birds.
Hatcher and Rogers are now working on a large installation for the Rainforest Exhibit at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, also in Providence.
Public art, he said, has the capacity to change communities. “Most cities, to my mind, do have a public art mandate in place and Providence definitely should. How do you lay claim to being a creative capital if you don’t support the arts?”
Beyond the I-195 district, Thorne said he knows the city and the mayor appreciate the arts, but there are limited opportunities in Providence for sculptors, in particular, who want to display their work.
“We’re a local organization that we feel is doing really innovative work. But for whatever reason, our community doesn’t understand the value of it,” Thorne said.
Thorne and others make two arguments for the need for more public art in Providence: that it enhances the cultural experience of living and visiting and working in the city; and that it is an economic-development tool itself.
Advocates point to the success of WaterFire Providence, which is an event and artistic performance that began in 1994 and attracts more than 1 million people to the city annually, according to Peter Mello, managing director and co-CEO. The annual economic impact is estimated at $114 million.
“Absolutely, 100 percent we view ourselves as public art,” said Mello.
In other cities, such as Chicago and Boston, public art walks are hugely popular and attract thousands of visitors. A sculpture in Chicago, Cloud Gate, is one of the city’s most-photographed attractions.
While the impact of the arts economy has been tracked in Rhode Island, it’s more difficult to assess the impact of public art, said Fortunato, because it is hard to quantify people’s interactions with the installation.
Randall Rosenbaum, executive director of the R.I. State Council on the Arts, oversees a public art program that is financed through state construction projects. In place for more than 20 years, the program is financed by 1 percent of the project costs for buildings used for state purposes.
Most of the time, the art that is commissioned is placed in the buildings that generate the proceeds, Rosenbaum said.
So, for example, the program provided the funds for one of the latest installations, a series of illuminated panels in the chemistry and forensic science building at the University of Rhode Island in South Kingstown. Each of the panels has LED lights that highlight the symbols for the periodic table elements, interspersed with tiny fingerprints.
The artwork has been a hit with students. According to the student newspaper, the work is one of the most popular sites on campus to take a selfie.
Interaction with the artwork is one of the purposes, and the challenges, of such art.
Hansy Better Barraza, a professor of architecture at RISD, formed a nonprofit in 2007 to raise funds and install public art, including in communities that are economically disadvantaged, and may not get the benefit of new development.
She’s found that insurance requirements can be the most-challenging aspect of installing public art. Because the public interacts with a piece, artists are required to carry liability insurance. And until they have a funding stream, it can be difficult for artists to afford that, she said.
The purpose of public art isn’t necessarily to beautify a space, but to allow people to interact with the world around them. “The built environment is a really important thing for any state or municipality,” Rosenbaum said. “The ability to live and work in a welcoming community, and the welcoming [itself] is not just a metaphysical concept, but is it pleasant to live there? If there is something visually exciting in the environment in which you live and work, it creates a more-satisfying life.”
By definition, public art is accessible to all, not requiring status as an employee, or a ticket for admission.
“It’s aspirational,” said AS220’s Crenca. “It connects us,” he said. “Artists by nature are communicators. They’re trying to translate some very important ideas about who we are as human beings.”
Crenca, now a visiting fellow at The Avenue Concept, has been working on a series of painted portraits over the past year. Five of them are installed on the plywood and other material that fills the openings of the historical façade of the Providence National Bank building, at 35 Weybosset St.
Financed by The Avenue Concept, and property owner Paolino, the series is called “Types” and is meant to celebrate the diversity of people.
The orientation of each subject – facing the viewer directly – is meant to inspire eye contact and interaction with the painting, Crenca said.
Even as he painted the murals, he had conversations with passersby. Not all were complimentary. One of the murals depicts a woman with a vacant expression and sunken features. Crenca said she was meant to convey someone aged and weathered, carrying the weight of the world. “That’s the one that people have the most difficulty with,” he said, “and have questioned me. ‘Why would you make a painting like that, in the public?’ ”
Crenca responded with a question of his own: “What are we supposed to paint, just 25-year-old, picture-perfect, symmetrical people? Is that what the world is made of?”
He’s working on a series of 100 such portraits, although in smaller scale than the sidewalk murals. He hopes to eventually find a space where he could display them all as a series.
Public art is essential, particularly when society is still divided into classes, he said. Many people who live in Providence will never walk into a museum.
“By nature, we’re kind of tracked as human beings. We fall into patterns. Our head is down, we’re concentrated on something we’ve just left, or are going to. So where are we with regard to something in the present, and living?
“Public artworks are interventions,” he said. “They break the patterns. They get you to be awoke and aware.”