Providence, Rhode Island
WaterFire Providence, an award-winning fire and music installation by artist Barnaby Evans, has had an impressive cultural and economic impact on downtown Providence, , bringing people and events to a central urban area that was typically deserted after dark. A symbol of the city’s renaissance, WaterFire is striking as a successful urban event and a social phenomenon attracting media attention and economic activity to downtown Providence.
WaterFire is a complex work that is both sculpture and performance. The installation is composed of over sixty ritual bonfires which burn from sunset to midnight on metal braziers in the middle of both the Providence and Woonasquatucket Rivers. Accompanied by a sophisticated soundtrack of music, natural sounds, and chants, the entire installation runs for 3/4 of a mile along a downtown riverside park of paths, bridges, and plazas, causing the fragrance of aromatic wood smoke to float over the entire city.
From dusk until midnight, and frequently after, crowds gather along the river walk, to stroll, talk, hang out, or simply stare into the flames. The fires are tended throughout the evening by scores of black-clad volunteers in long boats who pass silently in front of the flames. “Part of the power of WaterFire is that it is real. It is not virtual. It is not on the internet. There are no special effects,” says Barnaby Evans, the artist and creator of WaterFire. “It is actual fire burning on flowing water in a bustling city, created before your eyes in real time by your fellow citizens.”
WaterFire began as a commission for First Night Providence in 1994/95, with eleven fires and thousands of on-lookers. The installation won first prize for creative programming from First Night International. In June, 1996, largely at his own expense, Evans and dozens of volunteers created an enlarged version of the event for the International Sculpture Conference, also held in Providence. The thirty-six-fire installation was a sensation. Among the many volunteers who approached Evans after the event was Joan Slafsky, a communications consultant and former PR director at the Rhode Island School of Design. She volunteered to assist with the fundraising to extend the installation further into the summer. With help from the city of Providence and funds raised by Slafsky, WaterFire returned for four additional nights that summer.
Over a period of eight nights, WaterFire had captured the collective imagination of the larger community. However, due to budgetary constraints, Evans had been forced to create WaterFire out of temporary materials and was relying on tens of thousands of dollars of borrowed equipment, from boats and motors to sophisticated audio equipment. If WaterFire was to return again, it would have to make the transition to more durable materials and a major investment in equipment. Slafsky and Evans began asking local banks and corporations to donate funds to keep WaterFire burning. Evans rebuilt WaterFire’s infrastructure, converted two boats to the needs of the project, and expanded the installation to 42 fires. I
Now a much bigger vision has taken hold. The artist, along with WaterFire’s many supporters, believe that WaterFire can become a catalyst for cultural and economic activity in downtown Providence, turning the once scoffed-at city into a New England version of Spoleto, Italy, with street festivals and events every weekend night during the summer.
In 1998, WaterFire was operating on a $250,000 annual budget, but as the scale of the project grows, its expenses are growing withit. Up to this point, almost 90% of the funding has come from private and corporate sources. “Never before have I fundraised where people seemed genuinely happy to hear the sound of my voice,” said Slafsky. People and corporations frequently give more than she asks for, and unsolicited donations are not uncommon. Fundraising was particularly effective, said Slafsky, when corporations were able to tie in their donations to a certain night. In return for a donation of $15,000 or more, the sponsor is recognized on the official schedule as the sponsor of that night’s event.
The city gave $30,000 to the project in 1997, and has pledged a little over twice that for 1998. The Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, local arts funders and universities have also contributed. The state legislature is considering a line-item for WaterFire that will partially fund the installation over a five-year cycle.
“WaterFire gets Americans out of their cars and back into their public spaces,” said Barnaby Evans. “By design, there is no point where you can see the whole installation at once, so you mingle with other citizens as you walk. It is designed so people can interact with each other, with the artwork, and with the urban environment.” Many viewers rave about the project because of the impact it has had on city pride. “One of the most commonly heard reactions,” says Slafsky, “is ‘I can’t believe this is Providence!'” The project has also acted as a catalyst, promoting arts groups to display and stage new work. “It has acted almost as an incubator for other public art projects,” said Slafsky.
Economic impacts have also been substantial. A study by the Rhode Island Foundation estimated that the average WaterFire viewer spent $15.48 downtown in 1997, and is expected to spend as much as $19.26 in 1998. Using 1997’s estimate of 215,000 visitors, that translates into over $4 million in additional spending downtown. In addition, the WaterFire production puts its $270,000 directly back into the state, in the form of wages (and taxes) and spending on wood, metal, and technical skills.
With the main riverside streets now closed to traffic during the event, restaurateurs have expanded outdoor dining, and are coordinating additional outdoor music performances. According to local restaurateurs, business on nights WaterFire is staged far outperforms any other night. Theater groups and performance troupes have contacted WaterFire in an attempt to schedule performances alongside WaterFire events, thus helping to realize the vision of a New England Spoleto-style festival.
WaterFire has become such a sensation that a number of cities are working with Evans to create related events. On May 9, 1998, Houston, Texas will host its first WaterFire in celebration for the opening of Phase Two of the Sesquicentennial Park. In addition, Evans is designing WaterFire Millennium, a series of related siteworks that will gather together celebrants in cities around the world during the year 2000.
Evans notes that one important factor is that WaterFire is a free event that is open and accessible to the entire community. In addition, Evans and the planners have tried to remain flexible so that the schedule can accommodate sponsors whose events could be held in conjunction with WaterFire. Although corporate and private donations make up the bulk of the contributions and companies are allowed to “sponsor” certain nights, the production is not commercialized in any way. An overriding concept is that WaterFire is tied intrinsically to the city, and not to any one sponsor. This helps promote the artist’s intention to make the entire city a stage set with its citizens being part of the installation work.
Photos: copyright Sandor Bodo