On March 1, the who’s who of PVD’s creative scene gathered at the Providence Public Library downtown to attend the unveiling of the Art, Culture, and Tourism Department’s new cultural plan: PVDx2031: A Cultural Plan for Cultural Shift. It was a wonderful, full-day event, complete with spoken word poetry, music, and a delicious catered lunch. I particularly enjoyed Joe Wilson Jr.’s opening remarks, as well as the keynote address by Vanessa Whang, a researcher, program designer and consultant for California-based organizations engaged with the arts.
Listening to the fervor and being moved by the energy of the recently renovated auditorium, I felt excited as I opened the pretty booklet containing what we had all been waiting for. Unfortunately, I felt lukewarm after reading the plan’s recommended activities. It seems the plan misses an opportunity to bring stakeholders together and use art to dream big for Providence.
The plan is broken down into seven themes: (1) Art and Well-Being, focusing on the intersections of art, health, and the environment; (2) Placekeeping in Neighborhoods, emphasizing the vision that each of Providence’s distinct neighborhoods have for themselves; (3) Creative Workforce, supporting fair artist wages, exhibit space, housing and sustainable funding streams; (4) Creative Economy, highlighting art, culture, and design-based revenue, (5) Resilient Nonprofits, supporting PVD’s arts, cultural, and humanities organizations; (6) The Future of Arts Teaching and Learning, emphasizing the importance of incorporating art into all curricula and supporting arts educators; and (7) Public Awareness, Advocacy and Tourism, searching for equitable, profitable ways to share what we do, and who we are, with visitors.
These themes are valuable, certainly – but a vision that matched the vigor of the unveiling would aspire to more than placekeeping in neighborhoods and incrementally improving the creative economy. Even if all of its points were accomplished, the plan falls short of calling for a cultural shift. It seems that a well-run ACT Department would accomplish these established goals as a matter of course, and that it missed an opportunity to broaden its scope. As the folks who wrote this plan certainly know, art has the potential to make a more democratic, inclusive, and equitable society, and a city’s cultural plan should aspire toward that end. If any department of the city could get away with being lofty in ambition, it would be the Department of Art, Culture and Tourism.
The plan’s points clearly identify which city stakeholders are responsible for its policy suggestions, but very few stakeholders beyond the staff of ACT Department attended the event. We did not hear from any representatives from Providence Public Schools, the Office of Sustainability, business groups or funders, or the Providence Police, all of whom have some responsibilities for bringing the plan to fruition. Without these stakeholders engaged, this plan is likely to collect dust alongside a number of other notable city plans of recent years.
The plan also includes a “measurable outcomes” section next to each strategy, but most of these outcomes are far from measurable. For example, one measurable outcome listed for supporting creative entrepreneurs is “more creative businesses incorporate and thrive.” For the goal of establishing new and fortifying existing pathways for young adult artists, a measurable outcome is listed as “more young artists from Providence stay and work in Providence.” This vague language eschews accountability.
Additionally, why is the ACT including the work of others in the success of its plan? One recommended activity: “Nonprofit cultural organizations and creative businesses should make measurable progress towards diversifying their workforces, closing gendered wage gaps and supporting caregivers.” Of course this is true, but including an unmeasurable item that ACT wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) control or take accountability for, in the cultural plan, seems like an exercise in futility.
It should be noted that this plan has been years in the making – how the current administration will choose to implement it, or whether they might choose to exceed its limited expectations and inexact action items, remains to be seen.
This unveiling should have trumpeted a rallying cry to which all Providence artists, nonprofits, and creative stakeholders responded: instead, the PVDx2031 plan muddles more in the details than in its potential. For anything like a creative revolution, we may have to wait until the 2030s.
You can see the cultural plan at https://artculturetourism.com/pvdx2031