Dan Lawlor: Providence’s Art Nouveau Moment
Saturday, July 07, 2012
“The purpose of my work was never to destroy but always to create, to construct bridges, because we must live in the hope that humankind will draw together and that the better we understand each other the easier this will become.” - Alphonese Mucha, early 20th Century artist
Providence is in an Art Nouveau Moment. A What? Art Nouveau is French for "New Art" - it was an international style popular in Europe, Japan and the US in the 1900s, before WWI. If you want a sense of Art Nouveau, google "Alphonse Mucha." It's beautiful.
The NewArt was the visual backdrop for artists, writers, business owners, cafe hanger outs, and the like 100 years ago. Today, in the stylized restaurants of the West End of Providence, we see a similar artsy way of being.
The interior designer Kyla Coburn is the the dreamer who helped create the visual spaces for much of this Art Nouveau Providence.
She has been active in designing the restaurants Loie Fuller (named after an early 20th century dancer), Lili Marlene's (eerily named after a love song popular in Nazi-occupied Europe), the Avery (with woodpanels echoing the Providence skyline and the art of Soviet refugee Tamara Lempicka) and Ama's (named after Japanese peal divers).
The Phoenix's Bill Rodriguez has written of Loie Fuller's, "Inside, it’s a trip. You have stepped back in time and place, to late 19th-century Paris, and you shouldn’t be surprised to see Toulouse-Lautrec sketching a redhead tending the bar."
While not part of Coburn's aesthetic, clearly Julian's on Broadway figures into West End Bohemia. The art is often imaginative, full of symbols and wild ideas. Chilango's on Manton has also become a popular hang out.
The high end of Providence's new Bohemia may be The Dorrance. (Disclosure: a good friend is the manager) The Dorrance, with its high ceilings, columns, and stain-glass windows with the coat of arms for the 1% of one hundred years ago, oozes classy dinner cocktails.
Not too long ago, by the bar at Dorrance, I overheard two middle aged men in heated debate. What kind of city leaders does Providence need? Surely, we need a little more heavy lifting, rule bending to get things done! No, never! The argument continued, with references to the Medicis as justifying (and criticizing) the need for big city patrons to push their weight around for the fame and fortune.
At the same time as these dinner drink discussions of modern Machiavellis, something tremendous has been happening. Providence is home to many community artists who seek to bridge art and income. These people work to cultivate community art spaces through AS220, Manton Avenue Project, City Arts, New Urban Arts, Urban Pond Procession, and Community Music Works. Frustratingly, there are still neighborhoods- Valley, parts of the North End, Chalkstone - that are left out of this new non-profit world. The view of this city from several neighborhoods really isn't that pretty or hopeful. But, here's the kicker: There is an art appreciating public that is growing in Providence.
For roughly a generation, hundreds, if not thousands, of young people have gained skills and talents they likely would not have but for the arts organizations in the downtown, West End, or Southside. Here are a few questions: How can we build opportunities in the neglected neighborhoods in the city? How can we connect opportunities in Art Nouveau Providence with the growing number of art aficionados across the city? How can we give the artists the skills to be entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs the awareness that the arts will help them?
The original Art Nouveau moment, with exceptions, was limited access, pay to play. However, one free aspect of that turn of the century art culture - and in our times- is the poster art. I don't think our art culture should be only business. A few years ago, prominent posters pronounced, "Olneyville needs a library, not luxury lofts." Today, it seems that the critical artist culture is giving way to a type of cheerleading. We need artists to challenge us. It's good and exciting to put artistic talent to design and advertising - but what about a poster or two challenging us to fix our schools, end gun violence, or mention that $75 million dollars our esteemed elected officials on Smith Hill gambled away?
Art movements, and creating economies that support them, are fragile undertakings. The amenities and the culture created by these spaces influence our conversations, our time together and our thoughts. For the "Art Nouveau Providence" to last, to thrive, and - wait for it - to expand and become more inclusive, we need to support policies that will make the cafes, restaurants, art galleries, shops, groceries, and furniture stores sustainable, to help more people have the income needed to enjoy it. In Vienna, they once said, "To every age its art. To art its freedom."
From charging higher rates on vacant store fronts (giving owners an incentive to find tenants) to a small bond or corporate donations to fix up the Columbus and Castle theaters, from brainstorming the next Waterfire to making sure every school has a strong theater and arts curriculum in a safe, healthy building, we have much exciting work to do. For the Art Nouveau moment to be more than a flash in the pan, we need to work for it, as community members, not just voters. Anything less than the best we can do, and the canvas will be ruined.
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