by by Isabel Parkes

illustration by by Drew Foster

In swapping the current "Renaissance City" image of Providence for that of a "Creative Capital," Mayor Cicilline is doing more than changing Downcity's banners and donning his "P" for Providence pin in efforts to rebrand the city. His most recent project, Creative Providence, is a "cultural plan for the creative sector" that has been growing out of Rhode Island's Department of Art, Culture & Tourism since September 2008 to help rebrand and re-attract attention to Rhode Island's arts and entertainment scene. In June, the city will launch a campaign to vamp up arts education, organize public transportation routes around art venues, extensively publicize gallery nights and bring the cultural waters of the city to boil.

Starting last September, however, the plan was tripped up by the subprime mortgage crisis, planting another stumbling block for the Mayor, who has faced financial concerns since the birth of the project. Now one of its largest challenges will surely be, as Elena Gonzales, a Brown University American Civilizations PhD student working on the project put it, "to truly cause those with the purse strings to literally buy into the program as a whole." The initiative faces the realities of failing banks, credit crunching, and despite its good intentions, questions as to whether the government plan is entirely necessary given the economic situation.
Seventy-two percent of Providence's non-profit organizations now face "major" declines in contributions and 21 percent face deficit, according to a recent report by the project. Though it does not operate exclusively within the non-profit sector, Creative Providence has taken a close look at these organizations as they establish a basis for much of the city's other artistic projects--noted their distress, but continued on. A large number of groups entered this year with no reserve funds. According to the initiative's online data, a number of groups will likely "fail" this year. It seems the creative capital behind Providence's initiative is as shaky as the rest of the economy.
A Glimmer of...Something
Still, those backing the $60,000 plan have hopes to better a city frequently described as an eclectic haven for artists. As Cheryl Kaminsky, AS220's Communications Director, told the Independent by email, "AS220 probably wouldn't get off the ground today if we started with the same $800 we had in 1985; there are opportunities we can't quantify or qualify in creating a fertile ground where these things can still happen." So perhaps today, though $60,000 doesn't sound like a healthy soil to plant in, fertility will come from other community sources. If $60,000 can serve as a kickstart from the city to boost attention among locals, however, things might take off. After all, as the CP website acknowledges, "it will take significant community participation to produce a locally responsive cultural plan and build a sustainable creative community," not just money.
The resources of local universities, like Brown and RISD, can play vital roles in advancing the initiative as well. Gonzales explained the impact students might have: "Brown can truly integrate artists and creative work across the intellectual work of the university and work with artists and other creative professionals to deepen the creativity of research, problem solving, and educational strategies in general." But now even for students who would normally venture into the city to support the arts, financial worries may be taking hold.

Creative Providence Studios Raise Further Questions

Already, Creative Providence has made a "Cultural Assessment" (September-December 2008) and is now in the "Cultural Planning" phase. Currently, planning "studios" are being held in various community centers. Program leaders at these events are focusing on tangible changes: gallery nights will get more publicity and K-12 core curricula are being examined, as leaders urge participants to "take a role in helping to get arts education back into elementary and high schools as soon as possible," even despite what the website itself calls a "very worrisome" financial crisis. Gonzales described the atmosphere of a March 12 studio, where attendees raised questions like "How do you get people interested in things outside their cultural nest?" and "How can the Cultural Plan help in the process?"
At the studio itself "most of the participants were from Providence. A few came from other nearby towns... Out of a (full) group of about 30 people, most were white women...there was a range from students and artists to managers of non-profits and individuals retooling themselves in a new economy...The tone of the meeting was extremely positive," Gonzales told the Independent. Yet Gonzales described a further danger of a more organized (and potentially exclusive) arts community: "Possibly most trickily, will the city succeed in involving all of Providence in the plan? ...There is a growing divide in terms of who is able to participate in 'cultural' life. Increasingly, participation is becoming much easier and more accessible for those who can afford it and those who work in the service sector are being increasingly left out completely. If that trend were to continue in Providence, this plan would be a failure." Already one might note the large percentage of white women in attendance at the studio, a poor signal for the project's diversity. Further, in a recent survey costs of admission (51 percent) and lack of time (52 percent) were cited most frequently as reasons for missing Providence's cultural events. The former shows no sign of relenting--due to the all-around rising cost of living--and the latter, people's time, is undoubtedly going down, as people will be looking to fill their time with paid work.
Waiting for the golden axe to fall
Why now, of all times, to put money into the arts? Some suggest that the initiative should wait. As one Providence resident questioned on Projo's blog: "Shouldn't getting the great companies into Providence be the main focus instead of the art community? ...The city has its agenda all wrong. We need education people coming out of our high schools... Wouldn't the $75,000 from your brother's firm come in handy now instead of some CULTURAL artsy fartsy get together?" Speaking as two of the many who optimistically back the initiative, however, both Gonzales and Kaminksy are positive about the need for reinvestment in the arts.
The good news for worried citizens is that the economic situation is on the forefront of the agenda. Stephanie Fortunato, the Creative Providence Program Manager, told the Independent that "more than ever it is apparent how important it is for the creative sector to work together if we expect to achieve greater resiliency." Creative Providence itself may play a crucial part in the city's economic recovery plan. Data presented by program leaders indicates that Providence's creative economy would benefit from the boost, and perhaps stimulate other sectors of the weak economy. Based on 2001 data, creative and arts-based jobs account for 18 percent of Providence's employment. In 2005, the state generated nearly $112 million in local, art-related economic activity; $55.6 million dollars went towards household income of local residents during that economic year alone. These are big figures, especially for a city that boasts a population of around 170,000.
Up to this point, the organizers have made their survey, reviewed the data, and now, are engaging in micro-planning studios. Fortunato described just how 'community-wide' this effort is: 20 are on the Steering Committee, 115 attended the Breakfast Launch last September, 140 partake in the Community Forums, 225 are engaging in the focus groups and just over 2,000 people were surveyed with a barrage of cultural-related questions prior to the launch of the plan. So although not huge (DesignPhiladelphia, the city's own 2008 cultural initiative had 235,000 attendants) but also not tiny, the Goldilocks proportions of the planning thus far are notable.
Economic forecasts for June 2009 look grim, and though this is not exclusively an economic plan, the use of its 60,000 dollar budget will be a huge factor in its success. Providence's commitment to the arts will surely be tested in the coming months. Mass art initiatives should be put on the backburner. Or maybe we should all head downtown and start donating our energy to the proliferation and production of art.

ISABEL PARKES B'11 will paint for food.