Pro-Visionary Providence

by by Katie Lindstedt

No two of the nine windows that comprise Providence Art Windows’ 2010 Spring Installation Series are alike. From March 18 to June 10, the streets of downtown Providence will act as a metropolitan museum. Its collection ranges from abstract oil paintings to an intricate sundial—multiple layers of dangling light bulbs on Eddy Street that cast dynamic shadows against a wall, their elliptical shapes shifting slightly throughout the day.
Providence Art Windows (PAW), which features four installation series per year, is one of several public art projects in Providence that have recently challenged traditional conceptions of a museum. These projects have emerged as improvisational transformations of vacant spaces into galleries and murals and as urban incarnations of l’art pour l’art, public projects that supplement the city’s lack of an extensive museum culture. Though Providence is home to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, southern New England’s largest museum, its high density of galleries, art students, and independent artists has created what current PAW director and fiber artist Rebecca Simering called a “DIY aesthetic.”

Downturns and Dexterity
Elizabeth Keithline started Art Windows in 2007 as an ongoing public art project that fills downtown Providence’s empty retail spaces with art installations and provides visitors and locals with visual stimulation. Siemering became the project’s director in June of 2008. The Providence Foundation, an organization dedicated to the economic revitalization of Providence, oversees PAW’s funding—a combination of private donations and public grants.
According to Dan Baudouin, Executive of the Providence Foundation, the vacant storefronts of Providence Art Windows are not the former displays of foreclosed businesses, but empty spaces with activity in the rooms behind them—the properties of cooperative owners.
An exception is the Kresge Building, which has been vacant for 20 years. Its storefront serves as one of the spring series’ windows and has featured installations in previous years. “It’s really not a part of the economic downturn,” Baudouin explained. “It just needed a reuse.”
Providence Art Windows features a core set of windows in every seasonal series, including those of Trinity Rep and Rhode Island Housing, mere blocks apart on Washington Street. Siemering referenced these two installations as the pieces whose content most closely mirrors its setting.
“Trinity Rep likes a little bit of drama in their window,” she said, “Vibrant colors.”
Madolin Maxey’s “Treasured Objects” is a vibrant work indeed, with five oil paintings of personified teapots rendered through bold brush strokes and bright colors.
The installation featured in the window of downtown advocacy group Rhode Island Housing was also thematically linked to its momentary home; “Reconstructing Providence” displays Jean Cozzens’ silkscreen prints of Providence’s Industrial Trust Building.
Baudouin noted that the project hasn’t fully explored the possibilities of urban dispossession as the artist’s canvas. He referenced statistics of downtown buildings’ vacancy rates. Five years ago, the rate was at 27 percent. Two and a half years ago, it had decreased to 11 percent but currently rests at 16 percent.
“Maybe there are more opportunities to work with those buildings,” he said.
Both Baudouin and Simering acknowledge that the project’s artistic displays and activation of downtown Providence remain its primary purposes.
“It creates a circuit for people to walk and notice the beautiful architecture of downtown Providence in less than an hour,” Simering said.
The layering of art upon the blank slates of vacant lots brings to mind current and past practices of Cornish Associates and the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation.
Last fall, the Smith Hill CDC commissioned local artists to paint murals on the walls of foreclosed homes to deter graffiti while the Corporation completes its renovations of the properties.
The Providence real estate company Cornish Associates provides local artists with spaces for galleries and weekend exhibits. According to Cornish developer Joanna Levitt, some downtown commercial spaces that the company owns have transformed into galleries in the brief interim between the expiration of their old leases and the start of new ones. One such space served as the site of RISD artists’ Black Sheep Projects’ opening event on March 18. The company’s partnership with local artists traveled by word of mouth, Levitt, who receives phone calls from artists on a weekly basis, said. 

Providence’s Many Avenues of Art
Providence Art Windows is one example of the many ways in which local artists have transformed the urban landscape into a canvas.
The Steel Yard, a local nonprofit, transformed the former Providence Steel and Iron complex into an industrial arts facility, which provides artists with working space and an education center offering classes in welding, blacksmithing, ceramics, jewelry, glass casting, and the foundry arts. It also offers studio rentals and open studio sessions.
In the years since the Steel Yard’s 2001 founding, the organization has transformed into a community of artists from many professional backgrounds: students, automobile specialists, visual artists, and tradesmen. Their collaborations—public and private ventures alike—explore the interplay between industrial trades and visual arts.
One such collaboration is Hire the Yard, an ongoing public project in which the Steel Yard works with artists, vendors, and representatives of local industry to produce functional public sculptures. Specific projects have included uniquely designed bike racks, custom-made tree guards, and one-of-a-kind trashcans and recycling bins. The Steel Yard has distributed these products throughout Providence—in Smith Hill and Olneyville, and at the Roger Williams Park—as well as other Rhode Island cities and southern New England locations.
Hire the Yard depicts the art in industry—Nate Nadeau’s India Point Park pieces are trash receptacles with nautical imagery—and the industry in art, as the trash can artists use the techniques of sandblasting, powder coating, and laser cutting. Where the industry ends and the art begins—or where the art ends and the industry begins—remains ambiguous.
While private art projects have also transformed industrial objects into art (the Museum of Modern Art in New York frequently exhibits installations of household objects), public art like Hire the Yard is unique in its ability to imbue these transformed objects with additional social significance. The trashcans are frequently born of recycled materials, which has additional resonance in light of the function these ‘installations’ serve on a daily basis. Howie Sneider—who runs the Public Projects for the Steel Yard, and whose Providence Art Windows installation is currently on display on Eddy Street—wrote in the Agenda, “These trash cans are unique projects that become unique objects, and they are cultural landmarks: ‘Go down Smith Street and make a left at that weird trash can with the state house cut of out it.’ ”

The Common Critics
“Rudimentary Channels” by Illinois and California-based artist Jason Chakravorty received mixed reviews last Saturday. The Providence Art Windows installation, one of two in the double storefront of the Kresge Building at 191 Westminster, features an arch of empty US Postal crates that hovers over a cluster of the corrugated plastic crates, some of which are illuminated. The arch descends into an accordion-like semicircle of the layered boxes.
 “Oh, that is fresh,” 12 year-old Bryan shouted as he caught a glimpse of Chakravorty’s crates, clutching a skateboard while running across Westminster to examine what caught his eye from afar.
Providence resident Mike, however, took offense at the unconventional nature of both Chakravorty’s work and the adjacent
installation, an untitled piece by Valerie Kim. Kim’s installation also features crates: red, blue, and green vessels of VHS-copies of Star Wars and Psycho. Television sets of different sizes and conditions lie just to the right of the crates.
Mike referred to the two installations as “attempts at being artsy that fall really short. It’s mostly just a display against previous culture that shows how unattractive anything old is.”
His wife Cynthia disagreed. “I like it,” she said. “I think it’s taking something that would be placed in a pile and making it artsy—”
“—artsy fartsy, yeah,” Mike interjected.
Their exchange highlighted one paradox of public art: unlike the works in a museum, which are usually only subjected to the scrutiny of those who choose to scrutinize, public art can be a pleasant surprise or an offensive curveball to the unsuspecting spectator.
Siemering expanded on the museum-versus-street-setting dichotomy. “When you’re working in a window,” she said, referencing the PAW artists’ work process, “It’s one of the most exciting things. You get immediate feedback; pedestrians will give you a thumb’s up. I always find that really wonderful, and almost better than being in a museum or gallery because you have an instant rapport with the public.”

Museum or Mausoleum?
The relationship between museum and storefront in America dates back to the birth of the department store in the late 19th century. In his paper “Museums, Merchandising, and Popular Taste,” scholar Neil Harris discusses the close ties between museums, department store displays, and world fairs, all of which served to exhibit commodities and influence the public’s taste. Harris notes that department stores competed with the museum as “a display area for artifacts.” As early as 1868, department store owners used artistic techniques to tempt the shopper: “displays of furs and silks…frescoed walls, [and] brilliant gas lighting.” John Cotton Dana, the iconoclastic 19th century librarian and director of the Newark Museum even “[insisted] that the buying public learned more about fine art from shop windows and travel than from museums.”
Like the lavish department store displays of decades past, the storefronts of Providence Art Windows’ spring installations may have more in common with the museum than initially meets the eye.
Clarissa Ceglio, a graduate student in Brown University’s Department of American Civilization with research interests in America’s museum culture and 20 years of experience in the gallery world, challenged the notion that museums stand in contradiction to public art.
“Providence’s primary institution that we call a museum and recognize as a museum in the classical sense is the RISD Museum,” she said. “But I think that what we have in Providence is a more complex ecology [with] not only the museum as an institution where art can be displayed, but also a very rich and vibrant gallery community [and] a high density of young artists.”
Ceglio noted that museums are a means of conferring value upon art, though each museum is unique and thus confers a different kind of value upon the works it houses. Sometimes the sheer absence of a museum can validate a work of art as well; she referenced the Steel Yard trashcans as art that would lose its social power in a museum setting. 
Some public art projects, like the Providence Art Windows, have, in certain ways, resembled a museum, but museum practices frequently reverse this relationship. “We like to associate museums with the idea of permanence. The flip side of that is that they are then also associated with the idea of being static,” Ceglio said. “But in contemporary times, the temporary exhibition certainly [is] a means [that draws] people to the museum.”
The lifespan of some PAW installations has surpassed their time spent behind glass. Siemering noted that past PAW artists have slightly altered the concept and scale of their installations and either resubmitted or recreated the works for other exhibitions. Occasionally the installations are even curated before they challenge the concept of curation; some of the artists have shown their work, including components of the installations, in museums prior to participating in Providence Art Windows. Ceglio commented, “That disrupts the inside-outside the museum construction a little bit.”


While formally curated exhibitions and public art projects have questioned—and perhaps undermined—distinctions between their two spheres of art, there are certain values of which neither world can claim sole ownership, transience in particular.
As Simering said of the art windows project, “Because it’s temporary, it’s more precious…it’s not something you forget. Everyone notices it and it’s beautiful.”
Temporary museum exhibitions can also linger in the minds of spectators, and perhaps challenge the notion of a museum as permanent and distinct from the world of public art projects. “A month in a window is certainly no more temporary than a museum’s temporary exhibit,” Ceglio noted.
The Providence art scene almost makes it seem like a burden to be permanently on display at the Met.

Katie Lindstedt B’11 encourages anyone reading this to submit his or her work for Providence Art Windows’ next installation series. April 18 deadline; apply at