The Arts

Creative Placemaking

FirstWorks is reinventing Kennedy Plaza


With so many artists in one city, it’s no wonder that Providence remains a creative titan on the East Coast. Artists flow from our coffee shops like the smell of roasted espresso beans, their minds brewing with new ideas. Musicians make the evening air tingle with tunes inspired by their surroundings. This city thrives on creativity, standing as a model for how art and industry can work hand-in-hand to empower communities.

Now, on September 29 from 4pm to midnight, this model brings an international artistic smorgasbord to Providence’s Greater Kennedy Plaza for a free one-day event titled FirstWorks Festival: On the Plaza. To give you an idea as to what you can expect at the festival, one of the featured acts is Bandaloop, a California-based troupe of dancers that dangle from ropes attached to skyscrapers, performing aerial routines to music.

As the name suggests, the festival is hosted by FirstWorks, the local non-profit organization that was “founded on the idea that the arts can make a huge contribution to solving civic problems and building a better community,” says Kathleen Pletcher, founder of FirstWorks. Each fall the organization kicks off their year-round programs such as art exhibitions and youth education events with an annual festival, usually featuring local or regional talent. This year, however, thanks to an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the FirstWorks Festival is reaching an unprecedented new level, bringing together local, regional and international artistic acts.

“There will be over 200 performers, Bandaloop being one that we’ve been trying to bring to Providence for the past six years,” says Pletcher. “Some of the other groups I’m excited about are the RI Philharmonic, Festival Ballet and a group called Squonk Opera.” According to Pletcher, Squonk Opera is a “zany and deeply artistic spectacle” that is expected to perform on a retrofitted monster truck, accompanied by a blimp with a face and a working jaw. Don’t ask, it’s better to experience it firsthand. The festival, Pletcher explains, came about due to partnerships between FirstWorks, Lynne McCormack from the Department of Art, Culture + Tourism, the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy and Mayor Taveras. “Truth be told, though,” says Pletcher, “with this many people contributing in many ways, there are too many partnerships to name. But I especially want to thank Mayor Taveras and Lynne McCormack for all their hard work.”

FirstWorks has the NEA to thank for the fact that the event is free to the public. Earlier this year, the NEA welcomed applications for its Our Town grant program. All applications had to feature a partnership between a non-profit organization and a local government entity, with each local government only able to apply once. After 112 applications were collected out of 447 interested parties, the NEA chose 51 partnerships to receive an Our Town grant. In that respect, Rhode Island made out like a bandit.

“The grant we got was one of the larger Our Town grants given out, and I believe that’s from what the NEA saw as the power of partnership in Providence,” says Pletcher, adding that this grant has given FirstWorks the opportunity to “take partnerships to the next level while including the best of Providence’s art scene.” More importantly, the festival has given the City an opportunity to revolutionize the image of Kennedy Plaza, and this kind of urban re-imagining is exactly what the NEA intended with their Our Town grants.

“We all looked at Greater Kennedy Plaza, saying that we have this historic hub - a transit and community hub – and we wondered about how people could experience it as a vital part of the community, a transformative part of our community,” says Pletcher. “The festival has to do with rejuvenating and animating space, improving business viability and safety and bringing people together.” All of this is an important part of creative placemaking, the idea that a community’s attitude reflects onto the community’s environment.

For an example of creative placemaking, one has to look no further than what AS220 did for Empire Street, says Lynne McCormack. “Before AS220, Empire Street was not a great place to be, and then they came in and turned it into a vital streetscape.” She goes on to cite Trinity Rep, the Steel Yard and the Providence Performing Arts Center as other instances of creative placemaking. If the individuals in a specific space feel energized and enlightened, their surroundings shine as bright as their passion. And with this year’s lineup for the FirstWorks Festival, Providence is about to shine brighter than ever before.

Besides the previously mentioned performance groups, some of the other featured festival acts include Papermoon Puppet Theatre (pictured above), an Indonesian strolling theatrical performance group; Zili Misik, an all-female music collective from Boston; and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, an award-winning ensemble that specializes in New York City salsa. A full WaterFire will accompany the evening’s activities.

“In addition, some RISD public art classes created illuminated projects for Burnside Park,” says Pletcher. “And Bandaloop will be illuminating a 30-story building where they will be performing. WaterFire will have an installation, so when people come into the plaza, it’s going to be glowing.”

With the bus depot located right next to Burnside Park, one can imagine that the festival will be a cluttered nightmare. But don’t worry – FirstWorks and their partnerships have planned for everything: “The night before the event, the busses are going to be moved out of the plaza,” says McCormack. “They’ll be moved to the edges of Exchange Terrace and in front of the Convention Center, similar to when the City was resurfacing the road.” According to McCormack, RIPTA has been cooperative every step of the way, willing to accommodate to the festival’s needs.

“And that’s what’s so astonishing about this,” says Pletcher. “It’s the culmination of what we’ve learned from past events in Providence, and it’s clear that RIPTA and the fire and safety services are working together to help bring something special to the city.” She continues, “We’ve been meeting for over a year, conceptualizing the project, and now it’s finally happening.”

But what’s the true point of the festival and creative placemaking? Why go through all this work to just reinvent Kennedy Plaza?

“Really, it’s about national recognition of the arts that are in Providence, in addition to the city’s growing role as a creative place and a creative community,” says Pletcher. “People will be coming from all over specifically for this event, because it’s the kind of arts festival that is truly unique.”

And it’s true: We may be the smallest state, but events like FirstWorks prove that our determination and artistic integrity far exceed our small borders. “[The festival] is about giving people a chance to sink their teeth into art,” says Pletcher. “If people want to dance the night away or stroll WaterFire or encounter street surprises or eat from local food trucks, it’ll all be right there at Kennedy Plaza, and admission is free. All I can say is, it’s going to be a kinetic extravaganza.”


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