Every American should have access to, and understanding of, the transformative power of the arts. Public art gives us the opportunity for both. When people work together, the possibilities are endless and rewarding. When projects begin in order to raise community morale, that nurturing can inspire trust, confidence and growth.
As documented on their site, “The Rhode Island State Council for the Arts [RISCA] administers the state’s 1% for Public Art Program. The legislative intent of the Percent for Art program, according to public law 42-75.2-, is as follows:
“The general assembly declares that the state of Rhode Island has a responsibility for expanding the public experience of art, and, it recognizes the necessity of fostering the arts and in developing artists and craftspersons. Art creates a more humane environment: one of distinction, enjoyment and pride for all citizens. The general assembly recognizes that public art also is a resource that stimulates the vitality and the economy of the state’s communities and which provides opportunities for artists and other skilled workers to practice their crafts. The general assembly declares … that a portion of each capital construction appropriation be allocated for the acquisition of works of art to be placed in public places constructed.”
To see how our state is doing with this, Jenn Degagne, a fellow artist, and I drove around the capital city in search of public art. We easily identified The Art Transformer Project’s painted electrical boxes in many neighborhoods. We noticed the natural effects of Mother Nature’s work growing along the sides of buildings like Blick Art Supplies on Wickenden Street and the overgrown vines decorating 29 Elbow Street. The Arcade, Burnside Park, Waterfire, RISD and Memorial Park near the Providence Greenway are all meccas for public art. Beautiful flower beds of daffodils and lilies decorate the industrial landscape this time of year throughout the city center.
The construction of the Iway has lightened traffic congestion and answered to safety needs while becoming an icon. Removal of the old I195 opened opportunity for further development along the Providence waterfront. Hence, Memorial Boulevard, Waterplace Park and the Riverwalk system and the Capital Center projects were born.
We noticed inviting strings of lights and hanging flower planters decorating Westminster Street in Downcity, adding a human touch to an urban environment. We also noticed the now out-of-date, not-so-attractive parking meters that could possibly be removed and replaced with “smart” networked machines. In San Francisco (sfmta.com/getting-around/parking/meters) this idea mimics what Mayor Elorza has in mind with his Uber-Surge type of parking proposal (variable rates depending on demand).
We noticed the INFLUX murals “Anchored” and “Razzle Dazzle” – INFLUX is a public art project curated by the INOPERAbLE Gallery of Vienna and the Avenue Concept (of Providence), and these murals, on the smoke stack near Classical High School, help create the “cultural corridor” between Classical and Central High School.
Roger Williams Park and Zoo offers endless forms of public art, from the Chinese Gardens to the Carousel to the Temple of Music. Walking through Blackstone Boulevard becomes a poetic experience if you read all of the plaques along its path inscribed with Latin names of trees, names of loved ones no longer with us and clever phrases on benches like “for you, from us.” Even the benches along River Road near the Narragansett Boat Club become public art. They symbolize a connection to community and a place to rest and appreciate the view. Another successful recent benches-as-public-art project rests along RIPTA’s R-line, a collaboration between the city, artists and the RI Department of Transportation.
Is all of this public art? What does it really mean to be public art? Generally speaking, public art is exhibited in public spaces. It is free and accessible to everyone, created with the intention to communicate a collective history, tradition, social or environmental issue of a particular community. Public art can take a wide range of forms, media and scales and can be temporary or permanent. It can include murals, sculpture and memorials, integrated architectural or landscape architectural work, community art, digital new media and even performances and festivals. However, it may also be found within private institutions like hospitals and corporate HQs. Public Art Works, for example, is one local group that has worked with and collaborated on several projects, murals and installations at Hasbro Children’s Hospital with Lifespan.
Stephanie Fortunato, Director of Providence’s Department of Art, Culture + Tourism, explained to me that in April 2016, Mayor Elorza established the Art in City Life Commission. “It’s a new city endeavor dedicated to encouraging the development of high quality public art and commemorations throughout Providence both from publicly and privately owned platforms.” According to Stephanie, an ordinance was passed in 1980; however, the commission was never formed, making Elorza’s initiative the first of its kind.
“In the past, our department has dealt with public art proposals on a case by case basis – we are very excited about the future of this commission. It will enhance participation with our communities, and the new guidelines bring a new transparency and consistency to the process, improving the experience for the artists as well as the public,” says Fortunado. A public arts policy is being drafted to include provisions for artistic quality to complement existing policies set by the Downtown Design Review Committee, Providence Historic District Commission and the Board of Parks Commissioners. This working policy states, in part, “The public art policy will help satisfy the Transportation Corridors to Livable Communities Creative Community Development and Placemaking Strategies (2012) plan that recommended public art to enliven public places, help define communities, and provide welcoming gathering places.” The committee is composed of nine members from different Providence constituencies: independent working artists, art organizations and affiliations, universities and colleges, and the private sector.
Placemaking is a concept that embraces public art, but also extends beyond that to address the form and status of buildings, public and private spaces that touch public spaces, the overall use of spaces and issues like neglect or graffiti – anything that makes a place pleasant. It’s a collaborative undertaking that addresses the physical, social and cultural aspects of streets and neighborhoods.
There are still many communities that truly deserve more attention to meet the intentions of the mayor’s proposal to “build the New Providence.” As we drive between Broadway and Atwells, or Potters Avenue and Public Street, it is plain to see these areas are full of vibrant families. However, Jen and I could see the deteriorating tenements and multi-family homes. There are plenty of churches, synagogues, day-cares, florists, markets, liquor stores, nightclubs, small eateries and medical clinics; however, the parks, gardens and artwork are still few and far between. At abandoned buildings with boarded windows, weeds cry out to be pulled. Accidental trees need to be excavated from crevices in walls. Cultural representation seems clouded by the neglect of absentee landlords, low income households that can’t afford landscaping and fence removal. Why is there such a gap in city development? Previously mentioned organizations can only do so much. It truly takes a city with city-wide pride to communicate its identity.
For more information on public art visit