Summer 2001 marked the 25th anniversary of the Providence Parks Department’s Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA). To mark the occasion, a few of the people involved in the OCA’s many successful programs reflected on what has made this agency so effective. Below are some of their thoughts, organized into sections on:
Nancy Derrig, Superintendent of Parks
Park programming has spread, but the Office of Cultural Affairs initially developed a prototype for successful arts programming from its beginning at Roger Williams Park… The office was founded in June 1976. One of the goals at the beginning was to find a way to bring families to Roger Williams Park. The park had fallen on hard times and it was not a family place anymore. None of the facilities were what they are now. Our feeling at the beginning was if it was going to be made a place that people would want to come back to, we would need activities there that would attract families. Events like concerts and festivals were introduced at that time. The very first thing, ‘Sundays in the Park,’ was designed for families. The idea that getting families back into the park, along with plans to renovate the buildings, would allow the community to see what the park once was.”
After 1977, the Office of Cultural Affairs was able to use parks as venues for public celebrations because thinking was beginning to change, and the fear that the parks were unsafe was fading.
Craig Watson, Director 1976-1980
“Later, the park’s bandstand was rehabilitated and the Parks Department was able to get some money from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rhode Island Arts Council. What came out of that became the Office of Cultural Affairs. I came to Providence in June of 1976. My assignment was, ‘Do as much as you can’, and I was given a tiny bit of money for support. That was the task laid at my feet. After 1977, the Office of Cultural Affairs was able to use parks as venues for public celebrations because thinking was beginning to change, and the fear that the parks were unsafe was fading. The 4th of July celebrations were then held at Roger Williams Park and lasted two to four days. We built performance events and sculptural events around the 4th celebration. From then on we supported programming at a number of neighborhood parks including free concerts, free children’s events, one-day neighborhood festivals, and other events in the form of a concert series. The goal was trying to animate the parks.”
Marianne Cocchini, Director 1979-1983
“When I came to the office, the initial mandate to revitalize programs at Roger Williams Park during its renovation had been met. So my job was to broaden the scope of that initial mandate and expand programming to include the Museum of Natural History, Roger Williams Park, and neighborhood parks. The other piece was that we tried to broaden the programming to include a more diverse audience. We continued to expand on quality arts, folk arts, and some popular music traditions of ethnic cultures.
Another important part of public art is that it becomes a mirror for the community to observe itself. It says this is art or performance or music that the city values.
One significant event happened soon after I started at the OCA when some leaders in the Hispanic community came to see me. We really wanted the Hispanic community represented in the musical fare. The Hispanic Cultural Arts Association has grown to become important in Providence. We had some great cultural performances because we worked together with this community. It was the first time that a major Latin presence was a part of the music scene in the city. People came from all over Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island to the festival. Ethnic music was never an ‘either-or’ situation because our musical performances were all about bringing in the best presentations of art, jazz, or classic work. I was always very proud of the presentations. It was a full array of offerings. In retrospect, I am very proud that some of the ideas of ethnic and folk arts found in the community have been very much expanded. Another important part of public art is that it becomes a mirror for the community to observe itself. It says this is art or performance or music that the city values. Public art is a democratic art form.”
Patric Marilyn Epstein, Director 1983-1987
“I have learned how important city art is and that art is the cultural signpost for the community. I learned that it [public programming] is part of what is important in the community. At Roger Williams Park, I really had to make sure the quality of the programming was high since that programming reflected so much about the park. That is an important lesson that I continue today in Central Park.”
Frank Robinson, Director, RISD Museum 1979-1992
“I remember the first Convergence festival, which was quite remarkable. It was a real revelation that a public park could be used in such a way… What the city of Providence says through its public art programs is ‘arts are vital to this community. Art tells us that we can be at our best, and artists teach us that by example. Art in public space makes us broader by telling us the importance of so many points of view. The arts give us pleasure, especially arts programs like Convergence that involves the whole family. What is the greatest thing for the people of Providence and Rhode Island is that they have access to art. Art is a part of life. It is not Capital “A” art on a pedestal; art is something to be lived with, and meant to be a part of everyday life.”
Dominique Alfandre, Island Moving Company
“Performing at the Temple of Music was really an experience… It was a magical day… The significant thing for Island Moving Company was the whole idea of having a performance where the audience could wander in and out was amazing. Most performances were in arenas where audience members bought tickets and came to the performance. This experience was different in that people who hadn’t even planned to attend a dance performance that day came and experienced it. Maybe it (the performance) was a surprise as they walked through the park… It was the first time Island Moving Company performed outside. Outdoor performances have since become a signature of the company.”
Peter Stempel, Artist
“Without that first Convergence piece none of the public artwork I have done would have happened… With Convergence, I can make things interact with thousands of people. It was the Office of Cultural Affairs that had faith to let me do it. People approach the artists at Convergence and enter into discussions. People are truly afraid of looking dumb when they are talking about art. They don’t want to feel that they’re missing something. If you look inside your car’s hood, you don’t understand everything. But, if you look inside your car’s hood and the man standing next to you has a wrench in his had, you will ask him to explain it. The same is true for Convergence. When an artist has a paint roller in his had, he becomes approachable. People are curious and approach the artists when they are installing the work. It is less intimidating. That is why Convergence is really important.”
With Convergence, I can make things interact with thousands of people. It was the Office of Cultural Affairs that had faith to let me do it.
Jay Coogan, Dean of Fine Arts, RISD
“I did a project at Roger Williams Park in 1991 entitled ‘Deep Water.’ I floated four large fedoras that I made on one of the ponds. From that stage I have used hats as an image in much of my work. Out of that project came a lucrative commission for Fidelity seven years later. I also used a hat for that sculpture.” One of the wonderful things about Convergence is the existence of temporary works of public art. The art is usually here for a year, and then the collection is renewed. Public art that is renewed year after year is a relatively unique idea. It is unlike a museum where the collection is more or less constant. For some fine artists, part of the attraction to Convergence is that it’s a democratic experience. It’s there in downtown with no kind of exclusive admission. Convergence and other public events that the OCA plans are all about being American since their accessibility diminishes art as an exclusive practice.”
Barnaby Evans, Artist
“I have been commissioned at Convergence three times. My first was in 1989 and it was titled ‘Temple to Milk’. My (public art) work continued to the First Night celebration in 1994 with First Fire. It was a very small version of WaterFire, with no music and six braziers. It was SecondFire that I later copyrighted in 1996 during Convergence and the International Sculpture Conference. That received so much attention, volumes more than what initially appeared at First Night because it was larger and along the new Riverwalk. Finally, in 1997 WaterFire was done independently and later year round.”
The OCA has been largely responsible for the enhanced reputation that we enjoy as a city that embraces culture and art.
Catherine Little Bert, Bert Gallery
“Convergence has been critical for contemporary artists. It was one of the first programs in Providence to showcase contemporary artists. Moving it (Convergence) to downtown Providence and to Waterplace Park was the beginning of great interaction in the arts community. Convergence was the main impetus of how Gallery Night formed. (The OCA) was aware of how a coordinated effort would benefit the community and businesses.”
John Palmieri, Director Planning & Development, City of Providence
“Their role in making the city a regional cultural Mecca benefits us in so many ways. One can measure the impact of arts and culture in a financial way. The OCA has been largely responsible for the enhanced reputation that we enjoy as a city that embraces culture and art. Not only the programming that is so critical, the way that the office has developed relationships with important players is noteworthy. It (OCA) manages to do things with real skill and aplomb. They do it the right way, like the subtlety of creating arts programs in a way that pays homage to the city’s status. Quality. When you look at the quality of artists and what they do with so few resources, you have to realize how fortunate the city is to have this office.”
Randall Rosenbaum, Executive Director, RI State Council on the Arts
“I think the work they do has energized Providence and now the rest of the state. By providing a level of artistic activity and by putting arts programming downtown, the OCA creates a significant arts statement in the city. It has kept the arts active and kept the arts in front of the community.”
Ben Allison, Jazz Musician and Composer
“The office is really dedicated to the artist… (the OCA) equips you to be artistically oriented. I felt that the whole staff was great and the festival was well organized. The audience received the music well. I wasn’t sure how the people of Providence would react. The kind of things the OCA has done have generated an open-minded audience. They were so interested and enthusiastic at the right times. It was a great feeling.”
It is easy to talk about the goals of arts in the city, but the OCA is probably the biggest single influence at actually producing that idea. I think they achieve an incredible amount with a relatively small amount of resources.
Vincent A. Cianci, Mayor, City of Providence
“The Parks Department Office of Cultural Affairs brings together people who appreciate the visual and performing arts. Their programming is part of what makes this a city of choices. There’s always some type of quality cultural programming going on.”
Buff Chace, Developer
“From my perspective, as Chairman of Trinity and as a developer who’s goal is to try and revitalize the downtown area, the OCA has provided important programming to help actualize the mayor’s vision of Providence as an arts city. So, I think the OCA provides an invaluable service to actualizing Providence as a place for music and performing arts. It is easy to talk about the goals of arts in the city, but the OCA is probably the biggest single influence at actually producing that idea. I think they achieve an incredible amount with a relatively small amount of resources. Also, if you think of Oskar Eustis in his role as Director of Trinity Repertory the OCA acts as artistic director for the city. It provides a real diverse component of arts that is accessible to all different ethnic and age groups. One would be hard pressed to find a similar department in another city that does as good a job as the OCA does. I have hosted a number of people that come to Convergence, and it has put us on the map.”
Jay Coogan, Dean of Fine Arts, RISD
“What the Office of Cultural Affairs has also done is attract other creative people to the city besides visual and performing artists. Others with creative minds, creative businesses want to be a part of this community. Providence is an arts magnet that pulls people here.”
Adapted from a brochure produced by Lynne McCormack and designed by Spot Interactive, with quotes from interviews by Lisa Palmer. All photos courtesy CapitolArts Providence.