The Providence International Arts Festival Shoots for the Stars

In what will likely be the biggest cultural event of the year in Rhode Island, the city of Providence is teaming up with FirstWorks to present the Providence International Arts Festival (PIAF). If you’re a fan of, well, pretty much anything, you’re going to want to check this out.

Providence is known for putting on high-quality festivals; you’ve probably enjoyed things like FooFest, Waterfire, First Night and Sound Session. But PAIF has been in the making for years, and it’s shooting for the stars. The Festival will connect Rhode Island audiences with home-grown talent as well as artists and performers from across the globe. And the game changer? The main events are FREE to the public! If you can’t go for some reason, it’s being called the “first annual,” so you’ll probably have more chances in the coming years.

For those who have never heard of FirstWorks, it’s a non-profit that has been bringing world-class performances and festivals to Little Rhody since its inception in 2004. But FirstWorks is about more than just throwing epic parties and showcasing talented performers. For six years, they brought the arts to children with their KidsWorks Program. Currently, they are working with Jazz at Lincoln Center musicians to make connections between jazz and math.

And something this large-scale has been in the making for a while; in 2011, FirstWorks and the city of Providence were given an Our Town Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for $200,000, part of which allowed the city to throw the FirstWorks Festival on the Plaza in 2012. The ongoing Our Town project “supports creative placemaking projects that help to transform communities into lively, beautiful and resilient places with the arts at their core.”

Interestingly, the connection between Rhode Island and the NEA goes back to the organization’s inception; the bill calling for the NEA’s creation was first introduced into the U.S. Senate by RI Senator Claiborne Pell in 1965.

Support for such a large undertaking also comes from another corner. Lynne McCormick, the director of arts, culture, and tourism for Providence says, “One of Mayor Elorza’s goals from the beginning of his campaign was to develop a destination arts festival, something along the lines of the New Orleans Jazz Fest, which he’s a big fan of. We thought the combination of the mayor’s full support and the opportunities from the NEA meant the perfect opportunity to put on something large-scale like this festival.”

It isn’t just the mayor and the city government behind the event. The PIAF has some of Rhode Island’s most serious creative and financial muscle behind it, including sources like The Rhode Island Foundation, CVSHealth, Amica, RISD, Alex and Ani and a multitude of others.

PAIF will kick off with the Opening Night Party, a night of food, drinks, art and music held at the Biltmore Hotel’s Apogee Lounge as a fundraiser for the festival. Guests will be treated to a sneak peek of the world-famous Earth Harp.

You may have thought to yourself at some point, “I bet I’ll never have a chance to see the world’s largest stringed instrument.” But that’s all about to change. The Earth Harp, the crazy creation of inventor William Close, basically turns whatever huge landscape its part of into an instrument, in this case attached to the Superman building in downtown Providence. Close plays the harp along with a band known as the Earth Harp Collective, and has stretched the strings from storied locations like the Coliseum and the Seattle Space Needle.

The main event will be a spectacle to behold, with art installations, concerts, spoken word ensembles, marketplaces selling wares of all kinds and more, all happening simultaneously. Kathleen Pletcher, FirstWorks’ executive artistic director says about the festival, “Our mission is to show that engaging with the arts can be about more than just an audience watching something happen on a stage. This event will allow spectators to self-curate their experience and engage with the multitude of things around them.”

Washington Street will become an art corridor that will include “Providence Portraits” by local artist Mary Beth Meehan and murals by street artists Etam Cru and Natalia Rak as well as Providence-based Tape Art. It’ll also be a great time to take advantage of the city’s theater offerings. For example, you could check out the multimedia Freedom Project at the Roger Williams National Memorial or take in the world premiere of Melancholy Play at Trinity Rep.

Music will be well represented here, and the sheer variety of talent likely won’t be matched until next year’s festival. The most notable act is Angelique Kidjo, a Grammy-award winning singer and activist and one of the all-time-greats in world music. RI-Sounding Voices is a statewide chorus that will be unveiling a new piece called “One Voice” that highlights the state’s diversity. Guests will also be treated to Malian superstar Oumou Sangaré, with local master drummer Sidy Maiga. Your hometown favorites like The Low Anthem, Ravi Shavi and GymShorts will be repping the area. And you won’t want to miss a performance from Arc Iris (featuring Jocie Adams formerly of The Low Anthem).

Of course, what’s a cultural celebration in Providence without a full Waterfire lighting? The June 13 Waterfire will celebrate the birth of the stars and stripes with The Gaspee Project, which celebrates the famous burning of the HMS Gaspee. The project includes “From Flash Mob to Freedom,” which will use social media to bring to life the key players and retell the thrilling tale. For a double dose of historical insight, the RI Historical Society is giving walking tours throughout the day.

The coolest thing about the festival will be the scope; it won’t be just a few restaurants giving out samples next to a few record sellers. The city is going all in on this event, and from the looks of it hopes to make it like a mini SxSW. You can swing by the Dean Hotel to watch some skater punks rip it up and shop for some clothes, then grab some lunch at any number of food trucks before you head over to Lupo’s to see Matt and Kim, then end the night at the Sweatshop Dance Party at the Salon.

It can’t be said enough that what has been described here merely scratches the surface, and an article twice the length may not even be able to do the job. For those who would like to have a hand in making this event something thousands will remember, check out first-works.org/support-us-2/volunteer to find out how to volunteer.

If you’ve somehow gotten through this article and haven’t already, make sure to mark your calendar for June 13. If it comes together as planned, people will probably talk about it for the rest of the year; you don’t want to be the poor sap who missed out! And if you can’t find something to love at this event … it’s probably too late for you anyway.

The Providence International Arts Festival will be held from June 11-14. The main attractions will be held on June 13 in downtown Providence with Kennedy Plaza as the central hub. The latest information can be found at first-works.org/events/pvdfest/, and additional entertainment may be added up until the event.

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