A petition to increase the pay for local vendors contracted for city events has been reviewed by the Providence Charter Review Commission and is now in the hands of the Providence City Council for final review and approval.
Currently, Section 21-27 in the Code of City Ordinances allows a threshold of $5,000 for vendors (DJs, Poets, Singers, Authors, Actors, Table Vendors, or Media Personalities) to be contracted for city events without going through a bidding process. If the amount they charge exceeds $5,000, the vendor must then compete with two other vendors for the gig through a bid.
Once bids for vendor candidates are received, “any such contract shall be awarded to the lowest responsible bidder among them.” The petition requests a minimum of $10,000 to replace the $5,000 threshold “so that city departments can give financially meaningful contracts to vendors without having to go out to bid.”
If approved, the minimum amount that vendors can be paid for an event will increase to $10,000. Artists will also be paid via direct deposit instead of by check.
Local award-winning poet, author, filmmaker and CEO of Orange Entertainment Damont Combs (aka Mr. Orange), with the support of 30 fellow artists, wrote the petition to ensure vendors are paid sustainable and timely wages for their involvement in city events.
Several local advocacy and art groups also supported Combs, including the African American Advisory Group (AAAG), Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Belonging, RI Black Storytellers and Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading.
With the insanely high inflation rate, the proposed amendment came just in time. Combs mainly rallied for these changes given the rapidly changing value of the American dollar.
“Another reason for doing this is I have kids; I’m a family man and I want to teach [my] kids to get paid for what they are worth,” he added.
In 2021, Combs participated in six city events, but it took him about four to five months to get paid for them. “I reached out to the artist community to see if anyone else was having the same issue. It’s been an issue for 20 years and artists thought it was normal,” he said.
Combs decided to find out more about the bidding process and ordinances in place. “I went to the Providence Department of Arts, Culture, and Tourism (ACT) and the Mayor’s office to request a meeting but was told they’d get back to me,” he said.
Combs eventually got to meet with Mayor Elorza, who gave him helpful pointers to get the initiative started. “He’s been helpful with starting the process. It may look like I’m alone, but I have people helping me.”
It took Combs about six months to complete the petition letter and figure out how contracts are handled in the city. There were some in the artist community who were reluctant to join the cause.
“Many thought that I was fighting the ACT and the Mayor, but I wasn’t,” he said. “I was fighting for artists to get paid, that’s why I started this.”
Some were also skeptical, wondering how an ordinance that had been in place for decades could be changed. Regardless, Combs’ fellow artists have thanked him for what he is doing and encouraged him to keep going.
The initiative has directly affected Combs in several ways. “I’m not getting paid for this. I’m also not getting event bookings because I don’t have time,” he said.
Combs attended about 2-6 hour-long meetings per month to get information, research ordinances, and meet with people to understand what he was reading.
“If there is going to be a change, the price must be paid,” he said. One of Combs’ biggest supporters is NiLa, a singer, songwriter, mom, and long-term creative from the south side of PVD who runs the NiLa78 Masquerade.
While NiLa recognizes the rich opportunity for artists and home-grown talent in the Renaissance city of PVD, she is aware of the disparity between what performers put in and how they are compensated.
“Before you get paid, you have to pay for it [i.e., deposit, equipment, etc.] and then you are promised to be paid eventually. I am simply grateful [Orange] has been a leader,” she said.
NiLa emphasized how properly compensating community artists and performers not only makes them feel appreciated, but it also puts food on the table.
“Artists have families too; [we] are not second-class citizens because we go after performing arts,” she said.
“It’s a huge slap in the face for artists to not be able to cover their bills. It’s unfair to put them in that position.”