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Is Providence’s Art Community Still Thriving?

Saturday, February 08, 2014


Providence brands itself as The Creative Capital, but is it still a city that supports the arts?

"The answer is unequivocally yes," said Deborah Johnson, Professor of Art History and Women's Studies at Providence College. "The better topic is to categorize Providence in the bigger context of Rhode Island."

Johnson and a political scientist colleague from Rhode Island College were commissioned by The College and University Research Collaborative to write a study on the economic impact of arts and culture. When you put an art historian and a political scientist on a case, you get numbers – numbers that back up her belief in the thriving local arts community.

From her forthcoming report:

* In 2010, Rhode Island was home to more than 1,000 arts organizations, 5,200 jobs, and $324 million in economic activity.

* The State currently estimates that for every $1 spent by an arts organization in Rhode Island, $2 is generated for the spillover economy in restaurant patronage, hotel reservations, and related business.

* The State has created several arts sectors with adjusted sales-tax in Providence, Pawtucket, Westerly, and Woonsocket, among others, and this has been shown to improve the prosperity of existing area businesses and introduce new, vital, and often technologically-grounded industries.

"We are the state with the third highest level of employment in the arts in the nation. We also have strength to build from. We have such a good foundation in human capital and arts-related business. It's not as if we're starting from a weakness."

Lynne McCormack is the Director of Arts, Culture + Tourism in Providence. She, too, backed up the strength of the local arts scene with hard data. In 2011-12, the City of Providence Department of Art, Culture + Tourism was one of 200 pilot communities partnering with Americans for the Arts on the creation of a Local Arts Index. This tool, modeled on the National Arts Index, measures the vitality, character and performance of local arts activity over time.

Americans for the Arts measured an increase of 145 arts-related businesses in the City of Providence (23% increase) since January 2010. These Creative Industries reports offer a research-based approach to understanding the scope and economic importance of the arts in the United States. Nationally, there are 904,581 businesses in the U.S. involved in the creation or distribution of the arts. They employ 3.34 million people, representing 4.25 percent of all businesses and 2.15 percent of all employees, respectively. (The source for this data is Dunn & Bradstreet.)

The report went on to say that non-profit arts organizations and audiences are a critical part of Providence’s economy. The expenditure of $190,054,892 in nonprofit arts and cultural organizations resulted in 4,669 full-time equivalent jobs. These figures place Providence above the national median and regions of similar size.

Art is a significant part of U.S. economy

In the 2013 Bureau of Economic Analysis report, Joan Shigekawa, National Endowment for the Art’s Senior Deputy Chairman said in a statement, "Art and culture is a significant part of the U.S. economy. Not just its contributions of ideas and creativity to the innovation economy, but also as an important part of the labor force and our country's GDP.”

In a recent article on the best cities for for creative people, Complex.com put Providence at #8:

"Recently rebranding themselves as the creative capital, Providence is set amongst the idyllic backdrop of green tree East Coast vibes. Providence is a special little city that boasts a hardcore academia slant with universities like Brown University and the highly-acclaimed Rhode Island School of Design. The sheer fact that so many creative people flock to Providence to study makes it a great place to meet like minds, even if you aren’t going to school yourself."

Rhode Island's arts community has the advantage of history. Think of Slater Mill and the Industrial Revolution. This was more than just just an economic triumph for America.

"It was also a triumph of the American creative spirit," said Randy Rosenbaum, Executive Director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.

"As Rhode Island became a destination for a diverse population, a number of different layers of creativity became a part of our state psyche. Then we became the jewelry capital of the universe, for a short period of time. The establishment of RISD and all the other higher education assets all contribute to an environment that's vibrant and creative."

Key location

Rhode Island's close proximity to art powerhouses such as Boston and New York make it an attractive place for artists to start, or live out, a career. The cost of living is relatively cheaper than other big art cities, and other cities are taking notice.

"You can look at surrounding communities such as New Bedford or Fall River and see that they may be where we were 20 years ago," Rosenbaum said.

He went on to explain that the art community in Rhode Island has had many friends in high places. From Buddy Cianci to Lincoln Chafee, elected officials have consistently supported local artists.

"Buddy Cianci and other leaders helped to establish this as an important thing in people's psyche. And Governor Chafee has been a cheerleader for the arts as well, making people understand that government isn't just about making the dollars work but also contributing to quality and meaningfulness of life. They present the role that the arts can play as part of the public agenda."

Last year, the Governor, Senate President and the Speaker of the House assembled a group of experts at Fidelity Investments in Smithfield to talk about the role the arts play in economic development.

Three broad themes

"Business people, artistic people, government people . . . all of whom looked at the role the arts can play in helping to motivate our economy ahead of the current dismal state that it's in. Three things emerged as broad themes," Rosenbaum said.

1. Make Rhode Island a supportive environment for the arts and a destination for people who want to buy and experience art.

This led to a General Assembly sales tax initiative designed to make Rhode Island a destination for art buyers – who in turn spend money on hotels and restaurants – but also to make arts part of the state brand.

2. Solidify the cultural infrastructure.

"We need to ensure that we have the facilities and the infrastructure to support the influx of people and renewed interest in the arts. Chafee called for a bond initiative to support capital improvements on cultural facilities as well as historic preservation."

3. Arts Education

"To ensure every kid in our state has access to quality arts education, designed to create problem solving people who can think on their own and in teams to be the kind of 21st century workforce that employers are looking for."

Critics might say a state so interested in the arts has few museums to show for it. The RISD Museum is perhaps the most famous, along with the John Brown House Museum, Governor Brown Lippitt House and the Newport Art Museum. Rosenbaum said the answer is in the definition of museum, and the size of the state. For its size, he says, Rhode Island has many excellent museums.

"The arts museums [RISD and Newport] both are operating at a very high level. Also, the historic homes, historical societies … there are an abundance of those kinds of things here in Rhode Island. If you define museum broadly, we've got plenty."


Related Slideshow: 25 Movies Filmed in Rhode Island

Prev Next

Moonrise Kingdom


Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray Frances McDormand

This Oscar nominated film features many local landmarks including Fort Wetherill State Park, Bayfield Farm, and the Conanicut Lighthouse.

Prev Next

Mr. North


Director: Danny Huston

Cast: Anthony Edwards, Robert Mitchum, Lauren Bacall

Shot in Newport, this comedy-drama features Anthony Edwards as a con man attempting to break into the 1920s Newport social scene. 

Prev Next

There's Something About Mary


Directors: Peter and Bobby Farrelly

Cast: Cameron Diaz, Matt Dillon, Ben Stiller

Filmed partly in Providence, this movie was the highest-grossing comedy in 1998. 

Prev Next

Federal Hill


Director: Michael Corrente

Cast: Nicholas Turturro, Anthony DeSando, Libby Langdon

Set in Providence's Federal Hill neighborhood, the movie marks the directorial debut of Pawtucket native Michael Corrente.

Prev Next

Age of Innocence


Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder

This Oscar winning drama was partly filmed in Portsmouth.  

Prev Next

True Lies


Director: James Cameron

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold

The ballroom scenes in the movie were filmed at the Rosecliff Mansion in Newport.

Prev Next

High Society


Director: Charles Walters

Cast: Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra

Nominated for two Academy Awards, the movie's opening shot features a flyover of Newport’s oceanfront mansions. 

Prev Next

Thirteen Days


Director: Roger Donaldson

Cast: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp

This docudrama about the Cuban Missile Crisis was partly shot in Newport. 

Prev Next

Little Children


Director: Todd Field

Cast: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley

Shot partly in Providence, this critically acclaimed drama received three Academy Award nominations, including a Best Lead Actress nod for Kate Winslet.

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Director: Peter M. Lenkov

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Bacon

A car chase for this action-comedy was filmed in downtown Providence.

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Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Dijimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey

Shot at the Rosecliff Mansion in Newport and the State House in Providence, this drama received four Academy Award nominations in 1998. 

Prev Next

Outside Providence


Director: Michael Corrente

Cast: Shawn Hatosy, Amy Smart, Alec Baldwin

Filmed in multiple locations throughout Rhode Island, this movie is an adaptation of Peter Farrelly's 1988 novel of the same name.

Prev Next

Me, Myself & Irene


Directors: Peter and Bobby Farrelly

Cast: Jim Carrey, Renée Zellweger. Chris Cooper, Robert Forster, Richard Jenkins

Filmed in Newport, Narragansett, Jamestown, and Galilee, this comedy centers on a Rhode Island State Trooper played by Jim Carrey. 

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Director: Lajos Koltai

Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Claire Danes, Toni Collette, Meryl Streep

The film was primarily set in Newport and included large portions shot at Gooseberry Beach.

Prev Next

The Great Gatsby


Director: Jack Clayton

Cast: Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Sam Waterston, Bruce Dern

This Academy Award-winning drama was filmed in Newport at the Rosecliff Mansion on Bellevue Ave.

Prev Next

Self Storage


Director: Tom DeNucci

Cast: Eric Roberts, Jonathan Silverman, Michael Berryman, Tom DeNucci

Filmed in a self storage facility in East Greenwich, this horror-comedy marks the directorial debut of Cranston native Tom DeNucci. 

Prev Next

27 Dresses


Director: Anne Fletcher

Cast: Katherine Heigl, James Marsden, Malin Åkerman, Ed Burns

Shot throughout Rhode Island, locations included the Rosecliff and Marble House mansions in Newport and a beach in Charlestown. 

Prev Next

Dan in Real Life


Director: Anne Fletcher

Cast: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, Alison Pill

Filmed primarily in Jamestown, the movie also features the Point Judith Lighthouse in Narragansett.

Prev Next

Hachi: A Dog's Tale


Director: Lasse Hallström

Cast: Richard Gere, Joan Allen, Jason Alexander

Filmed primarily in Bristol and Woonsocket, other locations included the Columbus Theater in Providence and the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. 

Prev Next

The Education of Charlie Banks


Director: Fred Durst

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Ritter, Eva Amurri

Shot partially in Brown University in Providence, the movie marks the directorial debut of Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst.

Prev Next

Meet Joe Black


Director: Martin Brest

Cast: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani

Warwick's Aldrich Mansion served as the residence of Anthony Hopkins' character in the film. 

Prev Next

Reversal of Fortune


Director: Barbet Schroeder

Cast: Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Ron Silver

Jeremy Irons took home the Oscar for Best Actor for this drama, which was partly shot in Newport.

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Director: Frederik Du Chau

Cast: Jason Lee, Peter Dinklage, Patrick Warburton, Amy Adams

Shot entirely in Rhode Island, filming locations included Hope High School on the East Side of Providence.

Prev Next

Tanner Hall


Directors: Francesca Gregorini, Tatiana von Furstenberg

Cast: Rooney Mara, Georgia King, Brie Larson

Shot in Providence and Newport, the film marks the the directorial debut of Brown University graduates Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg.

Prev Next

Dumb and Dumber


Directors: Peter and Bobby Farrelly

Cast: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Lauren Holly

Scenes from the beginning of this comedy were filmed on location in Providence, including a shot of the Big Blue Bug.


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